Hanukkah Glimmers of Hope – Reflections on #metoo and #wecommit

This sermon was preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on Sunday, December 10, 2017.  You are free to quote this sermon in other contexts provided full credit is given to the author.

Story for all Ages

You know how sometimes something can happen around you – maybe at school, maybe during class, maybe during recess, maybe it happens at home – and you don’t really like it. It doesn’t seem right.  It doesn’t seem fair and you wish it wouldn’t happen.  You know how there is always one kid that gets teased, right? And everyone knows who that kid is. We know there are rules against that kind of teasing but it happens anyways and you know it’s not right, but you’re scared of what would happen to you if you stood up for that person. Maybe then you would be the one who got teased. So, you stay silent, but then you have to watch that kid keep getting teased, and it hurts.

The story of Hanukkah, is a pretty special story and it has something to tell us about bullies.  More than 2000 years ago, the Hellenistic Empire conquered the Jewish people. When the Greeks conquered a land, they forced the people to give up their culture, their religion, and their language.  This was very scary to the Jews. They were afraid they would cease to exist and they wanted to resist, but the Greeks were pretty scary.  Some  Jews tried to give in just enough to look like they were getting along, and then they would try to teach their children in secret about the Jewish language, religion and culture.  But the Greeks made it very hard to get away with it. They took over all the temples and ruined them, they closed the schools and punished anyone caught breaking the rules. And if someone got caught, it was very bad. This happened day after day. And after a while, people started getting really angry. A small group of Jews called the Maccabees decided enough was enough. It was time to draw a line in the sand. They were going to fight for their dignity and for their survival.

This little army began to fight the Greeks. Surprisingly, they won a lot of the battles for such a little group.  In one big battle, they actually took back one of the temples the Greeks had ruined. They walked into the temple and saw the mess and they cried because it made them so sad and angry. But, they were determined to light the temple flame. In the Jewish tradition, there was a flame in every temple and it was to never go out. It symbolized that God was with them. But there wasn’t enough oil in that ruined temple to keep the lamp lit, only enough for 1 day.  It would take 8 days to make more. They wondered whether they should wait to light the lamp for 8 days, but they decided no. They had to take the chance. They lit that flame and started to make the oil. Miraculously, it was still burning on day 2, and then day 3, and then day 4, all the way to day 8, when the new oil was ready.

So today, the holiday of Hanukah is when the Jewish people remember the miracle of the temple flame. There are 9 candles in the menorah, like the one I have here. The center one represents God. The other eight are lit from the first candle, one more candle every night, to remember those 8 miraculous days. The lesson of Hannukah is that you should never hold back from doing what is right. You should never let injustice pass you by, never be a bystander. If something is wrong, it is our job to tell someone, to be there for people who are being harmed, and to believe people when they tell their stories. It will not always be easy. Sometimes you have to do what is right even if it might make your life harder for a while. That is what it means to be a moral person.

Hannukah starts on Tuesday so we aren’t going to light any of the Hannukah candles today because it would be disrespectful to light them as a demonstration. Some people in this church grew up Jewish and will begin lighting the candles in their home on Tuesday. After the Menorah is lit it is placed in the front window so that everyone can see it. So as you drive around town this week, look at the homes you pass. Some of them will have the light of the Menorah, and now you’ll know what that means.

It is our responsibility as people of faith to know when it is time to draw a line in the sand and say no more. Just as the Jewish ancestors did, we have to work for the worth and dignity of all people.

A Ritual of #MeToo (developed by Rev. Karen Johnson and adjusted for the particular culture of this unique congregation)

There are so many ways that we are in changing times. One of those ways is embodied in the growing voices of women telling their stories, and they aren’t easy stories to tell. For many of us they are stories we’ve kept quiet for a long time because we could not trust that we would be believed or that anything would change. These are stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  If it’s helpful to know what that means, it’s when one person touches another person in a way that isn’t wanted. It can also happen with words when you use sexualized language to make another person feel powerless or ashamed.

There are always women who have dared to tell their stories, but more and more women are drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Enough. We will accommodate no more. We will be silent no more.”

This fall, the hash tag #metoo burst into social media. Metoo was started by Tarana Burke, an African American woman, in 2007 as a way to help women identify themselves to each other to know that they were not alone. She also wanted to help African American women in particular claim their power through truth telling. Because of the nature of race, gender and power in this nation black women are more vulnerable than other women to sexual violation and more likely to see those who violate them go unpunished.

Then this past fall, when allegations of longstanding sexual harassment were leveled against Harvey Weinstein and it became clear that the whole industry had protected him and punished the women who dared to speak, actress Alyssa Milano turned metoo into a hash tag.  She challenged women to take the risk of naming their experience on social media to create a critical mass so large that not only would the Weinstein story stay alive, but that women would also create an avalanche of truth telling to take on the backlash. In less than 24 hours, 12 million women used the hash tag #metoo to identify themselves as survivors of sexual harassment, and sexual assault.  Since October, millions more have come forward.  Many men have been identified as perpetrators. Some are facing the consequences and either losing their jobs or choosing to step down.

The purpose of #metoo is threefold. The first is to help women and those of all genders who have experienced sexual violation to not feel alone. There is healing in claiming our stories in solidarity with others who have been harmed as we have.

The second is to show men the magnitude of the problem so that men can no longer claim ignorance. Sexual assault isn’t a women’s problem, it’s actually a men’s problem. More than 90% of abuse is committed by men. So #metoo is asking men to step up and take responsibility for addressing sexual harassment.

The third is to change the culture so that every person can grow up trusting that their body will be respected. One whole premise of the #metoo campaign is that change happens through visibility.

Across the United States and Canada, Unitarian Universalist congregations have been taking time in our worship services to invited our people, our beloved people, into the #metoo movement.  There is guided meditation that was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Karen Johnson, and we will bring this meditation into our worshipping space and declare that we are in solidarity with all in this congregation and outside it who have experienced sexual harassment and assault.  You will have the opportunity, if you so choose, to identify yourself as a person who has had this experience, or as someone who has loved someone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. Participation is voluntary. We are all in different places in terms of comfort and our healing process. But today, may we come together in solidarity with all in this community who yearn for healing and wholeness and a changed world.

Let us begin.

(This ritual is amended from the original by Rev. Karen Johnson. The original is here: http://blog.awakeandwitness.net/wp/2017/11/metoo-prayer-ritual/)

Make sure you are seated comfortably, feet flat on the floor, arms loose loosely resting, and eyes closed or open, aware of your breathing. Aware of your thoughts, aware of any anxiety or concern because of the tenderness of what we’re focusing on, aware of those we sit with, each of us human beings with a need to be loved and respected.

Remember to breathe and to breathe deeply and then once more, to take the breath in and let the breath out, we pause, poised as we are, at a point of risking, at a possibility of courage: #metoo.

Risking vulnerability

Risking pain

Risking being known

Risking being not believed

Risking being believed

Risking so much, including leaving the shadows behind, and stepping into healing light.

Risking being brave.

I invite any in the room who understand yourselves to be included in the #metoo movement, this moment in time when so many are stating publicly that we have been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually harmed, any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to come forward and be with me, and stay with me, and if you are so moved, to add your stone to those already resting beneath our chalice.  I will stand in silence for at least one minute to give lots of time, and if I stand alone that whole time, that is alright, for I will trust and know that I am actually not alone, that almost every woman in this room and some of you who are not women have experienced some form of violation, whether verbal or physical. Let us enter into a time of silence so that those who wish to come forward can do so.

[allow time & space for those to join]

I invite anyone in the room who knows someone, loves someone, regardless of their gender, who has been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, sexually harmed – any one of these or all of them.  I invite you to lay a stone to those already laid beneath our chalice, adding your committed witness to those who have risked coming forward, who have risked being brave.

[allow time & space for those to join]

I add this stone for those in the room who are not yet ready to come forward, but know the truth of their story and are a part of #metoo.  We honor your choice to not come forward at this time.

I add this stone for those among us who have been perpetrators of sexual violence.  We pray that you know who you are and do not run from this truth.  We pray for healing, accountability, and for forgiveness.

We will try to be brave.  And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine.  And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours.  We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

Let us bring intention to this act of courage, of witness, of solidarity. Let us notice and see, truly see, the pain in this room,…and the possibility.  Let us commit in the quiet of our hearts to do what you can to stop any future harm. And may we build and ever rebuild the world where safety, equality, and justice, wholeness and integrity, are the air we breathe.

May it be so. Amen.

 

Sermon 

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I preach about Hannukah in some form every year. Because Unitarian Universalists honor the truth and wisdom in all religions, and because there are members in our congregations who grew up Jewish and may still observe the Jewish holidays, we always recognize Hanukkah in December.

I am always wondering what my angle will be this year. Will I stay with the mythological remake of Hanukkah, predominantly developed for children, that offers a simple story of the struggle for freedom and dignity? Will I focus on the miracle of finding hope when the odds are stacked against you? Will I focus on the aspect of risk, when failure is a real possibility and you light that flame anyways?

On the other hand, I can go into the actual historical story and see what’s there. Hannukah originates in a story of war. It is a story about violence meeting violence.   One Empire, led by men, tries to destroy a smaller nation, led by men.   It’s men fighting men. It’s bloody and there are no rules, just that you win at any cost. And the message is that violence is redemptive, violence protects and violence restores. And it is the violence of men that accomplishes this. There are no women in the Hanukkah story. Men are the fighters, the decision makers, the heroes and villains, the winners and losers. They light the chalice.  For me as a feminist and as a pacifist, I struggle with any story that holds up violence as the means by which true peace and freedom are established.  War doesn’t create peace; it changes the balance of power.  At most, military might and intimidation can keep people from killing each other.

In Ancient times, women were on the same level as children. They had no identity of their own, it came from men – their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles. Women were property.

Now to be fair, this is how it was for every culture in the Ancient World – Greek, Roman, Persian, Syrian, Jewish.  It was the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was the constant. You see in their religious texts the foundation for the relations between men and women, a relationship that was not equal and women had no agency. This is the foundation of western civilization and it is the legacy that we continue to live with and struggle with.

In this foundation, the words of women meant nothing.  Women were irrelevant except as the bearers of children.

But there have always been women who have tried to light the temple flame, to shine light on their lives and their experiences and their truths. If you read the ancient texts against the grain, if you look in the dark corners of history and culture, sometimes you can find them. But you have to look hard. And if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the words:

Believe women.

Believe women.

Believe women.

The #metoo movement is accelerating a very old struggle – women’s ongoing struggle to be believed. We’ve been trying to light the temple flame for thousands of years. We have been trying to tell the stories of what it is like for the patriarchal legacy of western civilization to be worked out on our bodies.

When 11 women came forward and told stories of being abused by the man who is currently in the Oval Office, many women and men and gender nonconforming people thought that it would mean he would lose the election. We hoped that the women would be believed.

Now Roy Moore, running for Senator of Alabama, has been accused by four women, with corroboration from multiple sources, that he abused young girls.  He still has a serious chance of winning the special election on Tuesday.  For some of us this is infuriating and it leaves us feeling very vulnerable.  If those men can get away with it, if they can attain political power despite all the women they have violated some of whom have taken the greatest risk to tell the truth, where does that leave us?

Not believing women has been a cornerstone of western culture for thousands of years. Not believing women is anchored in a deeper rooted belief, held not just by men, but by all genders, that women’s words mean less than the words of cisgendered men.   By cisgendered men I mean men who were born into the body that matches their gender. They were born with men’s bodies and experience themselves as men. We have internalized that female and gender non-conforming bodies are not as sacred, are meant to be available and that our worth is determined by our value in the eyes of men. You can see this, for instance, in what happens to widows, even today. Widowed women often experience being left behind by some married friends who suddenly find them threatening because they no longer have a man.  Yes, this happens in the 21st century.   Some of you may have experienced it.  The same dynamic that allows abusive men to hold power without accountability abandons women when they are without men. It’s all interconnected.

So when Harvey Weinstein’s behavior became public, Alyssa Milano got really nervous. She remembered Anita Hill. How many of us remember Anita Hill. This brave African American woman dared to speak out about being mistreated by Clarence Thomas, and the Senate chose not to believe her and to confirm Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. This broke so many hearts but few people were surprised because it’s an old story. Then as now, a temple flame had been lit when she spoke the truth. And it didn’t get to 8 days. How many women have lit the flame, hoping that more oil would come, only to have it burn out and take their reputations and sometimes their careers with it?

In the last 1 ½ months, millions of women have joined the #metoo movement. There is a critical mass of energy that is come together.   There are some big names in this country that have been held accountable for their choices – Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Trent Franks, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey, and there will be more.

I must admit that there is some satisfaction here, even for those men who have broken my heart. Might the flame actually make it to 8 days? I do think accountability is the only way that the abuses stop. I would like to be able to walk to my car in the evening after meetings, and not wonder whether I should hold our keys through our fingers.   Do you men know how often we hold our keys like this when we walk to our cars? I would like to be able to walk my favorite trails without always keeping an eye out and listening for the sound of feet.  I never go for a hike without texting my partner where I am and how long I expect to be on the trails. I would like to feel comfortable enough that I don’t insist on meeting in public when a man becomes newly involved in congregational life and wants to talk with the minister.

Part of the #metoo campaign is about creating the space for women to tell their stories and to be believed.  And as more women take the risk, others build up the courage to come out of the shadows.

But I think that the #metoo campaign is bigger than that, because the most important audience of the #metoo campaign is men.

Did you know that women Unitarian Universalist women ministers started their own #metoo movement amongst other ministers? Women started using the hash tag #metoo and sharing stories of male colleagues who had misused their power.   Over 200 women added their names. And the purpose of that exercise was to show our male colleagues what we had had to endure.  So lest we think that this is a dynamic that is predominantly in conservative circles, think again.  It is right here.

Now the purpose of #metoo isn’t to tell men that they are bad or evil or hopeless. It’s not to vilify men.  Rather it is to show men that abuse of women is not a women’s issue.  It is a men’s issue. We can keep lighting the flame, but it won’t make it to 8 days without men’s support and commitment.  It won’t make it 8 days if men don’t change.

 

In response to the #metoo, a new hash tag has been create, #wecommit. When a man posts #wecommit on his Facebook page or twitter feed, what he is saying is that he believes women and he takes responsibility for his part in how sexual violence happens. Many men are talking about how they were raised as boys, the messages they received from parents, teachers, friends, about what it meant to be a man and what a man should expect from a woman. Men are talking about how they were trained to feel entitled to women’s bodies. Sometimes they are even talking about things they did that they knew was wrong, and working on how to make amends. They are apologizing without using the word “but” or making excuses or saying if they knew now what they knew then. Men are making promises that they will never stay silent in the face of locker room talk. They will take the risk of losing friends and status by speaking up and challenging men who talk badly and disrespectfully of women. Men who have authority in the workplace are promising to mandate anti-harassment training for all employees. Men are promising to vote only for candidates who have strongly committed to ending the violence. Many fathers are promising to raise their sons to be a different kind of man.   Where emotions are encouraged, not suppressed, where feelings are talked about, and where boys are encouraged to explore all of who they can be separated from gender stereotypes.  Basically, men are promising to take on patriarchy.

And I tell you that even, though it’s the #metoo movement that has touched me deeply because it is personal, it’s when I see men who choose to believe, understand, and change, that’s what takes this from a sputtering flame to a strong one that is going to be a lot harder to extinguish. The #metoo movement lit the flame, the #wecommit movement is going to make sure that there’s enough oil to get through the first 8 days, and then 30, and then 365, enough oil so that our daughters and gender non-conforming children and all our boys will always be safe and loved, and that the brokenness that so many of us assume just happens, will become a story that we tell our children of how it used to be.

But we’re not there yet.

This is the thing about those Maccabees, those men who went off to war. They knew there would be losses. If you read the story of the Maccabean war, when they took over that temple, the Greek army was right outside. They had to hold back the enemy even as they tended that sputtering flame. The struggle never stopped.

That’s where we’re at right now.

It is very possible that Roy Moore will win on Tuesday and if he does, a lot of us are going to be in pain. It’s could to be triggering. So plan ahead and get your resources and support network in place so that if you need it, you have somewhere to lean on.

And even if that is what happens, we can’t allow ourselves to think that it means the flame has died. The struggle for bodily autonomy is a long one. We’ve been fighting it a long time. What we need to do is anchor in love. Love of ourselves. Love of women. Love of justice. Love of fairness and kindness and generosity. Love of our children. We have to live in our hearts as if the world we believe should be already exists. We have to stay in love. And when we do that, we won’t lose hope that all is lost. It is one set back. We have millions of women and gender non-conforming people and men in #metoo and more and more men in #wecommit. That can’t be erased in one special election.

So Hannukah starts on Tuesday night. There are people in this town who are going to light their menorahs, one more candle every evening, and they’ll place that Menorah in the front window. As you drive around town, keep an eye out because I bet you’ll see one or more than one. You’ll see the flame that never dies.  When you see that flame, think to yourself, “What can I do to make sure that flame burns for 8 days? What can I do to be part of the miracle that will be upon us where every woman and non gender confirming person is believed, where every man understands, and where all genders can live in freedom, peace and dignity?”

May it be so.

 

 

STJ We Are Answering the Call of Love (explain why the words have changed)

 

Our closing words are From The Talmud. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

 

 

 

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An Advent Kind of Hope

As a society we are encouraged to rush into hope.  We are well trained in the art of instant gratification where lamentations are often misunderstood as mere complaining.  We are encouraged to rush through grief, rush through loss.    If we are to meet the collective challenges of this time, it will not be through a cheap hope or a rushed Christmas.  We need an Advent Kind of Hope, where we name the injustices, sit with their pain, and in the face of suffering prepare to reclaim our power and strive for the realization of justice.  

This service was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on Sunday, December 3, 2017.

Story for all ages

Do you ever get the sense that everyone is rushing to Christmas? Christmas decorations start showing up in stores right after Labor Day. When Hallowe’en is done, some stores start playing Christmas Music, two months before Christmas!  And now that we’ve gotten past Thanksgiving, everyone is asking, “Are you ready for Christmas?” And I’ve never figured out what that means. Does that mean I’ve hung up all my decorations, or bought all the presents, or finished my grocery shopping for the meals I’m going to cook? Is this what is means when people ask “Are you ready for Christmas?” I hope it doesn’t, because I’ve always secretly thought to myself that being ready for Christmas should mean more than food, presents, and decorations. Being ready for Christmas should mean that you’re ready to welcome the special meaning of Christmas, which is hope.

Christmas is about hope, that there is always a reason to hope. But I’ll also tell you, if that’s what the question means, I still don’t know that I’m ready for Christmas.   Because you can’t rush hope, just like you can’t rush Christmas. If you rush either one, you don’t actually get either one of them.  Now why is this?

What’s the original Christmas story, about? It’s about the birth of a baby, named Jesus, that some Christians, not all Christians, but some Christians, believe is God.   Can you rush the birth of a baby? How long does it take for a baby to be ready to be born? About 9 months. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but mostly it’s 9 months of waiting, and you can’t rush that. You can’t make a baby grow faster. You just have to wait.   That’s just how it is.

But while you wait, all kinds of things happen. For women who are pregnant, they often have morning sickness, they don’t always feel well, you can get really tired really fast, your whole body changes as the baby grows and your body learns how to balance in new ways. Sometimes your feet swell, you want to eat different foods than you usually eat, and sometimes you want to eat more than usual, other times you just don’t want to eat at all. You have to accept all the changes, the fun ones and the not so fun ones, that are happening to your body.  That’s the only way to get to having that baby.

 

And then you can’t rush the birth. For some women, it takes a long long time to have their baby, days. And sometimes it happens really fast. Boom, a few hours and you have your baby!  And you don’t get any choice about whether it’s slow or fast. It’s going to happen how it’s going to happen. So through the whole pregnancy, you can either be impatient and unhappy, or patient and along for the ride. And truth be told, most women will do both because we’re just human. But just like you can’t rush Christmas, just like you can’t rush hope, you can’t rush a baby. You have to go through the whole thing.

So there’s this tradition in the Christian holiday of Christmas called Advent.   Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people put out a circle of four candles. Every Sunday you light one more candle. Today, for instance, is First Advent, and so you light the first candle. Then next Sunday, is second Advent and you light two candles, then the 3rd Sunday 3, and the 4th Sunday, all four. And then you’re almost to Christmas and the birth of baby Jesus and what he symbolizes. But you can’t light those candles all today, because it’s still really four weeks to Christmas. If you light them all at once you miss a lot.

Advent teaches us to not rush.  It helps us get to Christmas in the right way, with our hearts open, and our minds at peace, and our spirits ready for joy.  Advent teaches us that getting to joy and hope sometimes takes some effort. You have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen on its own.

What we do in Advent, as we wait to light each candle, is think about all the things that happened to us this past year, the good things, and the not so good things. Life is sometimes really good, and life is sometimes really really hard. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus in the Christmas story, life was really really hard for the Jews. And you couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t. You couldn’t rush through the hard things just like you can’t rush to hope.   You can’t get to hope if you try to rush through the things that hard.

The Advent candles teach us how to wait. How to be patient with ourselves. And how to name the good and hard things that happened to us. You can’t find hope if you can’t be honest about the hard things in life.

So this morning, in honor of Advent, we will light the first candle, and while we light it, we’ll take a deep breath, and spend one minute of silence, thinking about the good and not to so good things that happened to us this year, and in the silence, ask for patience and understanding.

So let’s take a breath, let’s light the candle…. And let’s us have a moment of silence, meditation, and prayer.

 

 

Reading

Solidarity with the Suffering: Why I Won’t Rush to Christmas.  Terry D. Williams

Advent is the season of expectation & darkness—the time in the church year where we explicitly develop the discipline of opening ourselves to the grief, loss, pain, and struggle of those who silently suffer around us.

At Advent, we call out our collective memory to be aware that some people fight addiction every day, that some people are dying of horrible diseases that are no one’s fault, and that even amid the most tragic circumstances, compassion and human kindness can heal and bring light.

Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent is like trying to force a happy smile on a cancer patient or deny an addict their well-earned tears all because we are too uncomfortable to sit with their pain and be real with them.

Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent denies the validity of people who suffer, long for change, and die never having seen their hope fulfilled.

Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent shortchanges the glory of Christmas—Christmas which is the final fulfillment of a longed-for promise that many hundreds of thousands of people never got to see, but which you get to live in today.

For most of our history as people of faith we have lived and worked and died in only the hope of change, never having the instant gratification of being able to eat from the trees we have planted in the journey toward justice.

Advent honors the darkness of our lives; the pain, struggle, and deep disappointment that we all share in the human experience is central to this crucial spiritual season.

While not all people on this earth have truly known joy—count yourself blessed and privileged if you have!—all people have known a measure of suffering.

Whether loneliness, grief, loss or physical pain; alienation, abuse, disappointment, or heartache; fear of tomorrow, fear of the past, fear of other people, or fear of Self; we have all known the darkness, my friends.

Let the darkness bind us together. Allow yourself to see the pain that others carry and to truly be in solidarity with the suffering this year.

Refuse to be satisfied by a Cheap Christmas—one where premature celebration denies the darkness experience of others and where insistence on holiday joy pushes the silent sufferers in our midst even further into their prisons of sorrowing soundlessness.

Let Christmas be.

For now, we wait for Advent.

And we will have the strength, and the grace to wait … in the darkness together

 

Sermon

When Kim Crawford Harvie graduated from Harvard Divinity School in the early 1980s, she probably knew it would be a stretch to get a job. She was a lesbian Unitarian Universalist minister and back in the 1980s, LGBTQ rights was barely on the UU radar. Ministry remained an old boys club. So when Kim applied the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Provincetown Massachusetts in 1985, maybe she felt the odds might actually favor her. Provincetown was a destination for gay and lesbian tourists.  In a time when where you could lose your job, your children and your family for being gay, places like Provincetown were paradise. You got to be relatively safe, have some anonymity, and be with people who were like you.

When the Provincetown church of 32 parishioners had called her, she also knew she had been hired to help the tiny church decide if they should disband. When she got there she found out the directory was out of date and half her parishioners were dead. So that left her with 16 parishioners.   She wondered how long she would be there. At least she would have some fun living by the ocean and going to endless cultural events and lesbian potlucks!

But then, something happened. A young man went to the local hospital with these strange sores. Within days he died. Three more men went into the hospital for the same thing, and they died. The local mainline churches refused to officiate funerals for gay men and as a last resort friends sought out the new lesbian minister at the UU church. Would she would do a joint memorial. She said yes. For the first time in a long time, the church was filled to capacity. Little did anyone know that this was only the beginning. The men had died of AIDS and in the 1980s there was no cure and little understanding of how the disease was transmitted, only that was killing off gay men at an alarming rate.

So this tiny 16 member church, with their new fresh out of seminary lesbian minister was thrust into the AIDS epidemic. The question was, would they be able to respond as a religious community, together, to this epidemic.    They decided that yes, they had no choice. This epidemic had landed on their front step and they would meet it.

The Provincetown UU Meeting House became known as the church that welcomed those with AIDs. Kim conducted hundreds of memorials. In worship services that used to have few in attendance, every pew was filled and there were pallets on the floor for those who had to be carried in. So many new members.  Some had AIDS, some were friends and partners of those with AIDS, others wanted to be part of the church because of its bold  ministry.

Members held support groups for partners and friends. Support groups for the dying. The center circle was for the pallets of those who could not sit or stand, around them were those in their wheel chairs, and behind them those who could still walk. As the ones in the center died, the ones in the outer rings moved in. It was a circle that spiralled inward as death claimed one after another and the outer rings welcomed the newly diagnosed.

In this time when AIDS patients were turned into modern day lepers, when politicians turned the other way, when families often abandoned those who were infected, when hospital staff refused to touch AIDS patients and quarantined them to die, the church rented apartments so that those with no place to die had somewhere to go. Members would visit and hold their hands, hug them, sometimes even lay next to them, listen to their stories, wipe their tears, help them to feel worthy of love and affection. Many of those offering comfort knew that soon it would be their turn. Everyone expected to die.

So in this time, oddly enough, the Provincetown Unitarian Universalist church found new life in a ministry of death and grief, and what Kim came to understand is that she had to develop a nuanced theology of hope that was beyond anything that she had considered. What did hope mean when you were in your 20s or 30s and you were dying? What did hope mean when your partner had no legal rights and when a homophobic society said you deserved this and when family members refused to acknowledge you? What did hope mean when health care providers wouldn’t touch you and most churches wouldn’t allow your body in their building for your funeral? What did hope mean when you might have a few months to get your affairs in order?

When Kim was interviewed years later, she emphasized that there was no way she could offer cheap hope.   Think about it.  How could she could in good conscience say, “It’s going to be alright,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Look on the positive side.” Everyone that came through the doors was desperate for hope, but it had to be a hope that spoke through the reality of what had been unleashed, a kind of hope that didn’t leave the injustice and the broken dreams unnamed.

And although there was always the sense of urgency, this also couldn’t be a kind of hope that could be rushed. It had to be an Advent kind of hope.

In spiritual terms, Kim and the members of Provincetown Unitarian Universalist were called to practice a theology that was deeply interwoven with lamentation and hope.

Lamentation, in the Jewish and Christian tradition, is the sacred practice of proclaiming your grief, and all that accompanies it, including anger, bitterness, outrage, remorse, regret, sorrow. If you have read the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, even a small portion, you see that it is book of sacred complaining about all the things have have gone wrong!  You look up at that which is more powerful than anything on earth, and you say, “How dare you!”   Sometimes I think that the book of Lamentations should be called the “How Dare You!”  book.  The Ancient Jews who wrote Lamentations accused their God of betraying them and permitting the injustices that wore them down.

Lamentations was written in the 60 years that the Ancient Jewish people experienced exile in Babylonia, from about 600 BCE to 540 BCE. The Babylonian Empire had taken over Ancient Jewish lands as part of their empire building and forced the Jewish people to live in exile.   And this exile was messy and bloody. Lots of death, lots of suffering, lots of injustice, lots of oppression. It wasn’t like a neat little getaway through the desert to a new home. This exile was meant to hurt and humiliate. After they had been forced out, the scholars and priests became very afraid that they would lose not only their land but also their sense of peoplehood and their faith.   Before exile, all the sacred stories had been largely memorized and transmitted through storytelling. During the Babylonian Exile they were written down to preserve them so they would not be lost, and this is what created what many of us know as the Old Testament. All those stories many of us had to learn in Sunday school, they were written down during the Babylonian Exile. And what the writers also did was document their sorrow, their fear, their outrage, and their sense of betrayal. And they railed against God. These writings became the book of Lamentations. Let me give you a short reading from Lamentations chapter 2 for a taste of what they wrote:

“The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob

“In his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Juda; he has brought down to the round in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; hs has sent this bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe, he has killed all in whom we took pride , he has poured out his fury like fire. The lord has scorned his altar and disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces. My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people. …

“What can I say for you, to what compare you o daughter Jerusalem; To what can Iiken you, that I may comfort you? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?”

This was some heavy duty sacred complaining.

When the Jews were able to return home, they brought the book of Lamentations with them. And when their next conquerors came, the Greeks, and after them the Romans, Lamentations helped the Jewish people to name their suffering without apology, without shame, to claim the truth of their suffering.

In the roughly 2500 years since the Babylonian Exile, Lamentations has used by many different groups of people to name their suffering as a collective unit.   This is not about complaining about individual suffering or random suffering.  It’s a way to give voice to collective loss, grief, anger, and injustice so that you can claim hope out of that shared experience.

If you look at the words of the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” which is the black national anthem and the hymn that opened this worship service, it is a song of lamentation moving into hope.

Listen to the words of the second verse:

“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our fathers sighed? WE have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

This song was written first as a poem in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, and 1900 is a significant year because it was a time of deep disappointment. The Reconstruction after the Civil War was being undone by white terrorism through the KKK and Jim Crow. Blacks were fleeing north into exile and bringing with them stories not unlike the ones in Lamentations.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a lamentation of what was happening, a lamentation that lifted up the 20th century terror as akin to that of the Babylonian exile, and proclaimed that freedom would come.

So when the people of Provincetown touched the legacy of Lamentations, they connected to a very old tradition. The collective suffering they were experiencing was the suffering of an oppressed people. Ignored by politicians, abandoned by families, judged and mocked, tormented by law enforcement, deemed untouchable by health care providers, watching their beautiful young strong bodies waste away. They had been exiled out of society and left to die.

What kind of hope could you possible claim without naming the reality of what was happening?

And in the lamentations, there was a hope to be claimed. Not the hope of a miracle cure, or families that suddenly welcomed them with open arms or governments that would suddenly start giving a damn. The hope came in the community that formed out of the epidemic, in families that you chose, where you were loved unconditionally, bonded with people who would remember you after you died.

Out of the lamentations of a constantly grieving and traumatized community came a claiming of who they were as a people. Out of their lamentations grew a political activism that has changed this whole nation. The fight for gay equality was born in the AIDS epidemic, when it became clear what the ramifications were of having no legal rights, no way to protect your loved ones, no rights for your partner, and no politicians who would fight for you. They transformed their lamentations into hope through activism. And this hope couldn’t be pushed, there wouldn’t be instant legal successes, but rather a slow changing of hearts, court decisions, and legislation. The pain of that time, galvanized through lamentation, became the hope that brought us to today.

We live in a time of lamentations.  The foundations of our democracy are being undermined.  There is a lot to lament.

And, as a society we are encouraged to rush into hope.  We are well trained in the art of instant gratification.  We are encouraged to rush through grief, rush through loss, where lamentations is often misunderstood as mere complaining.  If we are to meet the collective challenges of this time, it will not be through a cheap hope or a cheap Christmas.  We need an Advent Kind of Hope, where patience in the face of suffering prepares us to reclaim our power and strive for justice.

So on this first Sunday of Advent, let’s not rush into Christmas or be tempted by cheap hope. We can anchor in our lamentations, anchor our hope in community, in compassion, in our yearning for justice, with truth, honesty, patience, and understanding.

May it be so.

Source: The recorded interview with Kim Crawford Harvie on the Pamphlet Podcast:  http://www.pamphletpodcast.org/at-the-meeting-house/

 

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Hospitality as Organized Compassion.

We don’t need heroes to solve the woes of the world. We need organizers.  We need people who can organize goodness, organize kindness, organize generosity, organize gentleness and compassion, organize hospitality.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy on October 15, 2017.

You know how there are certain things – sounds, smells, foods, music – that can simply transport you back to an early place, back into your roots, back into home, whatever home is, and it feels good. For me, one of those things is hearing people talk with my accent because no one around me does. When I hear people speak with that Southwest Ontario Canadian accent, I am back home. So in the mornings I often listen to Windsor Morning CBC Radio 1 with Tony Doucette. Windsor was the closest city to our farm, and with the blessing of smart phones and data plans and apps, I get to hear the news, the weather in Celsius, the traffic report, gas prices per litre, and the wait times on the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit – in my accent, every morning, wheverever I am!

You might be surprised to know that Quincy Illinois and Windsor Ontario have a lot in common. Both are regional health centers surrounded by agricultural communities. Both have had to adjust many times to changes in economy. Quincy used to draw most of its wealth from river traffic, Windsor hit pay dirt during prohibition.  Both recovered through manufacturing. Both have lost jobs because the decline in manufacturing and most of their young people leave to build careers elsewhere.

For the last 40 years, it seems like Windsor City Council has talked about how to be less dependent on Detroit’s auto industry. When I hear Quincyians talk about the city’s new strategic plan, it feels very familiar.  Both talk about how to develop their river fronts to bring in tourists. Both also have a strong homegrown arts community and a symphony and a small university, and really good down to earth people.

So last Thursday morning, I’m listening to all those voices with my accent, and they feature this story about Billie Jo Werner, a woman who owns a house in downtown.  Like Quincy, there is a stigma in Windsor regarding the downtown area.  Anyone who can lives in the newer suburbs by the big box stores, and like many downtowns there are a lot of homeless people. It’s where the services are, where the public transportation is, where the main library has internet access and large supplies of couches and public bathrooms.

It’s not unusual for Billie Jo to wake up and see someone sleeping on her front porch. The homeless presence in downtown Windsor is a common story and one reason why many homeowners are getting out and turning these beautiful majestic old homes into rooming houses. Not unlike here.

Now I imagine that many of us would be pretty upset if we woke up and a stranger was sleeping on our property. We might feel a sense of violation. We might be scared of that person. We might call the police. If you have experienced homelessness, you could respond in any number of ways, depending on the experiences you had on the street – you might want to get as far away from it as possible, or you have no fear of approaching those who still live as you used to.

Billie Jo consistently chooses to see her community as a place of sanctuary for those needing shelter. She refuses to call the police when homeless people show up in her yard. She walks out her door and introduces herself to whoever has camped out that night. She asks for their name, she asks if they slept ok, she asks if they know where they’re going to get breakfast, and she asks what help might look like.

Now I have no idea if she works fulltime and how she would have the time to do all that if she did. They didn’t talk about that in the interview.  But what I did notice is how the interviewer tried to make her into a victim, in danger because of the homeless presence.  She didn’t buy into that. She said she was glad to live downtown, and that moving to the suburbs would mean turning her back on the people in her neighborhood. She wouldn’t be part of the flight to the suburbs.

The interviewer also tried to make her into a hero, to make the story about her and how great she was, and she did her best not to let them get away with it. She didn’t want to be a hero for being willing to get close to homeless people and treat them like human beings. She wanted the story to be about how people found themselves so desperate that her front porch looked like a sanctuary. She wanted an end to homelessness and how we treat homeless people, and an end to the assumption that homelessness is an unsolveable problem.

When I reflect on it now, I think there is a connection between our need for heroes and this idea that poverty and homelessness are problems that can’t be eradicated, that it’s just too big to take on and that we are ultimately helpless to end it.

I’ve always had a hard time with the idea of a hero because when you make someone into a hero, you put them on a pedestal and that puts them farther away from you and puts the good things they do also farther away from you. It makes the good things they do something special and out of the ordinary.

What heroes do is individualize goodness and I can say in all honesty is that I don’t believe individualized goodness can save us. It can’t save the world, can’t save homeless people, can’t save sick kids, can’t save people who don’t have health insurance, can’t save us from war, can’t end poverty.  So when we look for heroes, we set them and us up for failure because of course no one person can take on the big problems that we struggle with.

I’m not saying that what we do as individuals doesn’t count. That’s where it starts, but it can’t be where it ends or it will never be enough.  That’s why I don’t like heroes and honestly, I don’t really like movies about heroes, even super heroes like Wonder Woman that were supposed to be game changers. It’s not a fantasy that is particularly helpful.

And that’s why I’m glad that woman in Windsor pushed back against being turned into a hero. We don’t need heroes to solve the woes of the world. We need organizers.

We need people who can organize goodness, organize kindness, organize generosity, organize gentleness and compassion, organize hospitality.

Today we’re continuing our month long exploration of hospitality. Two weeks ago, Andy Grizzle, a Unitarian Universalist seminarian, talked about how he had to claim a radical hospitality to be in community with those holding a very different theology than him, and how that helped him hold onto his sense of self and honor his classmates. Last week we talked about individual acts of hospitality, how we engage in the sacred practice of making room for each other on an individual basis. Today we’re shifting to collective hospitality. We are talking about family and church, community, and town, and county and state and nation and world. All that layers that are bigger than our own private individual reality, all forms of human organization that are bigger than we are but created by us, for us, of us.

We are in a time when the question of who is included and who is excluded is right out there, and not in a good way.  Fear of who is getting in to this country is the energy in a lot of the policies that are being passed. There’s all kinds of ways that who we are as a nation is being made smaller –  immigration restrictions, deportations, the prison industrial complex, removing protections for LGBTQ people, dismantling the Affordable Care Act, criminalizing poverty – if you look at the policy changes coming being put before us, they are rooted in a particular way of understanding our collective identity. You don’t go to the front porch and offer sanctuary to whoever shows up, no matter how hungry they are or how desperate they have become. You get them off the porch and put up a gate.

All of these changes, this smalling of the nation, has been carefully organized. It’s not a lone individual making any of this happen. It’s not one president, or one senator, or one representative, no matter how those individuals may flex their muscle. The forces making this happen have been carefully organized over decades and the fear that fuels it has been organized for centuries. Racial segregation was a product of organized fear.  Organized fear of the Japanese created the context for internment during the World War 2. Slavery was a product of organized greed and so was the forced relocation of Indigeneous people. The prison industrial complex is a product of organized dehumanization. The anti-abortion movement is a product of organized sexism. So the policies we see emerging are a very effective way of organizing the power of those who are feeing threatened by the way this nation has been changing and want to pull it back to some idealized vision of what used to be.

So the question before us is, what does it look like to organize with the goal of collective hospitality, which means organizing with the operative principle of inclusion and expansion,  where we collectively walk out the front door, see who’s on the front porch, and offer sanctuary?

Many of us have read the stories of people who are being detained and deported.   The deportations never stopped under Obama, and they have grown under Trump. There has been a new wave of organizing, called the New Sanctuary Movement, to offer concrete aid to those being threatened. And as Unitarian Universalists, who say that service is our prayer, there are some congregations that have been doing an awful lot of praying.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation in Columbia MO took a congregational vote and became a sanctuary church. In August three Unitarian Universalist congregations – Austen TX, Akron OH and Colorado Springs – took in undocumented immigrants and 12 more are preparing to become sanctuary congregations.

So what does being a sanctuary church mean? It means offering a 24/7 place to stay for someone who is being threatened with deportation.   Once the people you are harboring enter your building, they can’t leave because as soon as they walk out the door they could be taken into custody.  The reason churches are doing this is because immigration officials are very hesitant to search a house of worship, even to get a warrant.   So as a church you create a home for them in your building, with all the things a person needs to live. A member of the church must always be there because if the police knock on the door, someone needs to answer and someone needs to protect those who are being harbored. It is a significant commitment. And if by chance the current administration is successful in passing legislation to make sanctuary churches illegal, or if they decide to push the issue and order ICE to target those churches, the boards of trustees and the ministers of those churches could face legal consequences, even jail. This isn’t a risk free hospitality. And in truth, is hospitality true if there isn’t any risk in offering it? Would that women in Windsor be offering hospitality only if she had every assurance that the people sleeping on her front porch were harmless? If we aren’t willing to become vulnerable as we reach out, if we offer hospitality only with guarantees, it is a shallow hospitality.

What these sanctuary churches are living is collective organized hospitality. No one person can do this on their own.   You on your own aren’t a strong enough entity. It has to be a community organized around the value of inclusion and expansion of the whole. And religious communities are perfectly situated to do this work.

Professor Sherman Jackson writes the following:

“The challenges of the current moment–including climate change, corporate greed, mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color, among others–could offer an opportunity….

“In fact, given these contemporary challenges, now might be the time when religion in America… is best positioned to demonstrate its value as a contributor to the common good….

“For religion can stand up to the state, the market and the dominant culture, by equipping its followers with an independent moral identity with which to analyze and assess the activities of government, ‘the economy’ and the dominant culture, instead of looking upon the state as essentially the god of the nation, the economy as a divinely predestined order, or the dominant culture as the ultimate, supreme value that is too lofty to be subjected to critical examination.”

Source: https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2017/03/14/catholics-muslims-urged-work-together-learn-one-another/

So who better than us, religious communities that have been organizing compassion for centuries.

The central purpose of religious community is to instill in us a deep understanding that we are all connected and that we need each other and then every decision we make is influenced by that undeniable reality. So, when human beings in our midst are being threatened with losing their families, their dignity, their safety, their lives – we can’t turn away. Our own well being depends on staying present. Just like Billie Jo who refuses to pack up and leave.  We can’t pack up and leave, can’t hide behind our stone facades. It is our moral responsibility to say, over and over again, and live as if our lives depend on it, “Do we see ourselves in the people who are sleeping on our front porch?”

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Generous and Alive

Generous and Alive.  A sermon preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on October 8. 2-17

“Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life.”  

 

Story for All Ages

Sophia’s Guest

http://www.uua.org/worship/words/story/sophias-guest

 

Reading

Love After Love by Derek Wolcott (98 words)

https://onbeing.org/blog/love-after-love/

 

Sermon

 

Like many teenagers, my dad taught me to drive, and given that I was deep into that adolescent time of self-differentiation where my dad could do absolutely nothing right, I really wasn’t looking forward to spending hours in the car with him telling me what to do! But I was a country kid, and for country kids a drivers license is your ticket to a social life on Friday night. It seemed like all that time with my dad was a sacrifice that would pay off pretty quick!

 

Dad started my teaching with a hard jolt. I’d had my learners permit for two hours. He piled the whole family in the car, and said, “You are driving me, mom and your brothers to Oma’s for dinner. Our lives are in your hands. If you make a mistake we could die. Let’s go.”  His first lesson was that every time you drive a car, other people’s lives are in your hands.

 

In the days to come, we spent hours crawling at slow speeds on the gravel roads around our farm, graduated to the undivided highway, mastered rush hour in Leamington Ontario with its population of 15 000, and parallel parked all over town. But the road that scared me most of all was the expressway.   On the day we finally approached the on-ramp to the 401, the busiest expressway in Ontario, I could feel myself shaking and he asked me to pull over when the onramp came into sight.

 

“Freeways are easy to drive once you’re on them,” he said. “But the most dangerous place on a freeway is where the onramp and the highway merge. When you are going up the onramp, climbing in speed, you have to keep an eye on the end of the onramp, you have to keep an eye on who is in the lane that you are going to merge onto. Are they slowing down or moving over to let you in?  If they do, you’re set. If they don’t, you have to slow down and wait for your chance, eyeballing how long you have before the onramp ends and moderating your speed. When you have a chance to safely merge, go for it. That’s lesson 1.

“Lesson 2 is just as important. Once you are the one on the highway, it’s your job to watch every onramp that you approach.   If someone is merging, don’t make it hard for them. You will move over or slow down so they have a safe entrance to the highway. Do you understand?”

 

I didn’t. “So you’re telling me I have to be ready for other people not making room for me but I always have to make room for them? Why should I make room when they don’t?” I wonder if my annoyance is similar to the annoyance that Sophie felt when she got that letter from God, someone who she wasn’t sure existed, and if they did, probably didn’t write notes and leave them on her desk. Why should she offer hospitality to an invitation she didn’t trust?

 

“Well,” he said, “You can choose to be a selfish driver and I can guarantee you that you will be dead sooner than you should be. You can be selfish and dead, or generous and alive. When you respect everyone on the road, even if they aren’t respecting you, then everyone is safer. You are more likely to come home at night and so are they. I want you to always come home.”

 

At that moment, he was no longer the father I lived to rebel against. His words were passionately energized with love. He was a fully embodied human being lovingly teaching his eldest child not only how to drive safely; he was teaching her values that he wanted her to live by, values that weren’t just for the road but for her whole life: be aware of who is around you and what their needs are; we hold each other’s lives in our hands; everyone, including you, needs their space; respect everyone. If you live like this, everyone gets home alive.

 

He was teaching his child the art of hospitality which is not only the art of being polite, but also the art of respecting the intricate and interdependent web of life. Hospitality is the art of being lovingly and generously engaged with all of life around you so that everyone gets home.

 

The theme of our services this month is hospitality. It might be stretch to think of hospitality as an approach to driving or as a life saving spiritual discipline. We think of hospitality as being kind to strangers, or asking people how their day, or offering a nice meal for those we care about. Hospitality is seen as a gentle art with a gentle impact. And this is absolutely true. All these gentle acts are vitally important.   And, we can never underestimate their impact. They may brighten someone’s day for a moment or save their life. Just like Sophie, we rarely know exactly what is needed or wanted. Sometimes we have to guess and hope that our efforts will bring comfort and not unanticipated suffering.

 

The working title of this sermon was “My home is yours until I believe it.” And what I am hoping to question is this idea that each of us has our enclosed separate reality that is exclusive to itself, like our homes where we lock the door behind us and separate off from the world, like the idea that the only part of the highway that is important is the lane that we are occupying or the destination of our individual journey. Driving is an act of sharing the road and hospitality is an act of sharing this world.

 

Every culture is unique in the particular balance it creates in how we draw the lines between ourselves and others. In America, we have a high level of individualism. We have expanded the parametres of what is deemed personal and shrunk the parametres of what is deemed collective and shared. You can see this in the way we drive. We ask for a lot of personal space and personal power in how we make our driving decisions. In Germany, by comparison, a country which has a different balance between the self and others, zippering is legally mandated. The line of cars on the onramp and the line of cars already on the highway must work together so that they merge one by one, with cars on the highway leaving room for merging and merging vehicles understanding exactly when their turn is to get on the autobahn. Merging is a shared responsibility and a shared risk.

Here in America, leaving room for a merging vehicle is a personal choice. We can choose or not whether we leave room for each other. The law places the risk entirely with the person who is merging, which ironically is also the person who is most at risk already. If an accident takes place, they will be responsible.  This is a direct manifestation of the heightened importance of the individual. Your car, your space, your issue. If you look at other places in American society, the risks of living are continuously downloaded onto the individual who most experiences the risk, like with health care and the way we address poverty.

 

I’ve lived in two countries, the United States and Canada, and what I have experienced in America is a lot more social anxiety because there is a lot less to catch us if things go really wrong. Because risk is highly individualized, the burden is on us, and life is really more precarious.

 

So my question to us is this: what is the spiritual and existential cost of putting the burden of risk on the person who is needing the space more than on the one who could be providing it? What is the cost to those of us who should be providing hospitality and what is the cost to those of us who have to keep asking for it, and sometimes even fight for it. How many of us have taken the risk of pushing the nose of your car into a lane because you’re running out of on ramp and you are hoping that you’re not going to be in an accident and hoping that the people coming up behind you will brake and not hit you? The result of the balance we’ve created in America between self and other creates a higher level of risk and uncertainty for us all.  It also creates a culture of distrust. We don’t know when to trust each other and what we can depend on each other for.

 

For those of you who drive, I be you have had the experience where you are making room for someone who is merging and they don’t believe you! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced slowing down for a merging car because there isn’t room to move over, and the person merging does not believe that there is actually room being made for them. They hang back and hang back, and that leaves the person making room for them to make a difficult choice – do they slow down to keep making room, or do they rush ahead? I’ve made both choices, and it neither ever feels satisfying because it is hard to not be trusted. Not being believed when you offer someone hospitality is a disconcerting experience. What did your generosity mean if it wasn’t accepted?

 

In Unitarian Universalism, we have grappled with the relationship between the self and the whole.  Our  faith has developed in response to our cultural context. We have swung between the polls of extreme individualism andcollective identity, and it’s been a struggle for us. We are the faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but sometimes we have held up the individual at the cost of community and our congregations have not been very effective. In response, we have evolved into a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises that we make to each other. Unitarian Universalism is a highly relational faith and living responsibly in light of the interdependent web of all existence is an operative principle. In fact, if you look at our 7 principles, (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles), every principle includes both what we should be able to expect for ourselves and what we are called to offer others. So our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of each person – tells us that we should be able to trust that our worth and dignity will always be recognized, and that we are called as well to recognize the worth and dignity of all others.  We are called to offer each other justice, equity and compassion in our relations with each other.

One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism has evolved into a religion of covenant, or a faith of sacred promises, is that we have recognized that there is an imbalance in how we live with each other.  We need a framework to untrain ourselves from the incessant teaching that we can be completely self sufficient, that our needs come first, that hospitality is individualized charity, and that we can survive without caring for others. When I say that we are a faith of covenant, it means that as covenanted congregations we make sacred promises to each other that elevate our responsibility for each other. We recognize that the spiritual and physical cost of an excessive individualism is hurting us all. In fact, lives are being continuously lost.

 

Think about what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night. One person was able to amass an arsenal of weapons that gave him the power to kill and injure hundreds within minutes. In our country, we have valued the right of a person to own a gun over the right of others to be safe from gun violence. Despite all the mounting evidence that easy access to weapons increases the rate of mass murders, increases successful suicides, and increases the rate of homicides, our country keeps feeding its addiction to weapons that are intended to kill human beings, and this costs us about 30 000 lives a year. That’s almost the size of Quincy.  The result of this continuous loss is that we are nation and a people traumatized by ongoing tragedy. We keep having to absorb more and more loss, more and more death, more and more fear and helplessness. What happens when people are repeatedly pushed to their limit, or beyond it, is that we start to close in, we start to try and make our worlds smaller, our homes impenetrable, the lane on the highway solely ours. The result then becomes more fear, more distrust, more loss, more loneliness.

 

So when I say that hospitality is much more than the gentle art of being kind to each other, do you see what I mean? Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life.   That is why Unitarian Universalism has become a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises we make to each other so that we have the strength not only to resist a culture that separates us from each other and dehumanizes us, but to become, together, the means of a path forward, a path towards healing, a path towards wholeness and new life.

 

You know what I’ve learned from driving on our interstates? Sometimes you have to do something a little extra so that people know you’re leaving room for them. It’s not enough to simply hang back and wait. They will be unsure what the space you’ve left for them means. I’ve learned that if you blink your lights, people are more likely to realize that you are actually leaving that room for them.  They can trust what they’re seeing in the mirror and hoping is true.  This practice has resulted in an almost 100% rate of people taking advantage of the space I’ve left for them.

 

We have to keep finding ways of providing the reassurance that if someone offers you an act of hospitality, it’s real.  If you are offering an act of hospitality, you aren’t going to take advantage of them in that vulnerable moment when they choose to accept your kindness. So my question for you is what would that look like for you? What can you do in your life that sends the message to those around you that you are prepared to offer that room. Who is it that you are needing to reach out to? Is there someone whose hospitality you need to build up the courage to accept?

 

This has become a matter of survival for us, I believe. Let’s take that into our hearts, let’s make hospitality our gift to our continuously traumatized country so that we can be part of the journey out of fear, out of hatred, and into hope, compassion, and trust.

 

Amen and blessed be.

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What I couldn’t see unless I saw it through another’s eyes

I have 3 strong handsome kind brothers. The four of us live across 4 time zones and still, my brothers are part of the beating of my own heart.
I have never in my 47 years gone to bed worrying that my brothers wouldn’t make it home because they would be pulled over by a police officer.
I have never doubted that if they were pulled over it would be for a good reason and that the police officer with whom they engaged would treat them with respect and stay within the limits of the law as they dealt with whatever the legitimate reason was for having pulled one of my brothers over.
And if my brothers were in trouble, I would never have thought for a moment that the police might use an unreasonable amount of force that could lead to injury or death. It would never have crossed my mind.  Nor would I have thought that a police over who did cross the line would ever get away with it.  I trusted the law to be impartial.
I have no doubt that my assumptions about my brothers’  safety are right because my brothers are white.
If I were to base my estimation of the police only by my white family’s experience, I would have a high valuing of the police, which I did until three years ago.
What I knew intellectually before the murder of Michael Brown has now become emotional knowledge because of the growing number of people of color who are in my life, because of the countless actions that I’ve been privileged to be a part of where I met and listened to people of color in my city talk about their experience of the police.
If I measured their truthfulness by my brothers’ experience, I would say they were lying. A lot of whites measure the truthfulness of the black experience by their own personal experience. That would be a mistake.
Being truly in solidarity means acknowledging the limits of white experience in providing the raw matter to attain a larger truth. Our own experience shadows the truth rather than reveals it.
Learning to decenter your own experience hits against the wall of everything we’ve been taught as whites. We have been taught in a million ways that what we perceive is right because we perceive it.
This is especially true in Unitarian Universalism, where we have been taught that our own experience is the bedrock of authority. This is what we have taught our children.
This is a partial truth and it is rooted in the culture of white supremacy, where white experience is given more truth and value than the experience of people of color. Yes, we Unitarian Universalists do give great authority to our own personal experiences, but those experiences must be anchored in a racial consciousness to give those experiences their true meaning. For whites, that cannot happen until whites listen to and center the stories of marginalized people. Only then can we understand our own story. Only then can we be complete.
I am so grateful that I do not have to worry about my white brothers. But I know why that is the case. I know that my confidence is a privilege that is denied to others. My prayer is that every sister can someday have the assurance and confidence that their brothers will be alright, that their brothers will come home, that their brothers will have long rich lives filled with joy, dignity, meaning, and purpose.

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When the veil dropped for white people, a recap.

In the days leading up to the resignation of Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales, white leaders in our movement were challenged to speak up.  I answered the call and developed a series of Facebook posts.  Because things fade on Facebook so quickly, I’ve gathered them here for those who have been wanting to access them.

March 30, 2017

As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life almost doubled.
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typically white middle class, to try and avoid the comments and be able to do her job.
She often experienced being spoken to as if she were a child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.
Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.
I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.
After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.
But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.
This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.
It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.
What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color.

Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.
What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.

March 31, 2017

This is where I have come to regarding the abrupt resignation of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA, following sustained criticism regarding racial bias in hiring decisions and his problematic response.

I wish he had not resigned but rather offered an apology and committed to the institutional work and his own personal growth as a model of leadership. But he didn’t. I am going to take him at his word that stepping aside was the right thing to do and would help clear the way for the work to be done. Our spiritual task is to accept his choice and to use the vacuum remaining to continue the work of dismantling the white supremacy culture that is alive in our beloved faith.

We have three presidential candidates, one of whom will take office in less than three months. How we engage with them and the UUA will set the tone for how we move forward. And move forward we must. Peter’s resignation should not be an excuse to stop. It should not become a distraction.

Thank you for your leadership Peter. I respect your decision. Like any minister who leaves a position under less than ideal circumstances, and many of us have, may you find peace, healing, and new life. In the years to come may you deepen through the hard lessons offered in this ministry.

April 15, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk about safety in our congregations, with some white Unitarian Universalists saying they no longer feel safe in their congregations because they don’t feel comfortable stating contrary opinions regarding race and racism.
Right now many people of color in our association are holding white people accountable for the state of our faith. They are holding our systems accountable. They are holding up the disconnect between what we say and do as a movement. A lot of white UUs are using their privilege to intentionally amplify the voices of UUs of color. All of this is making a lot of white Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Some of those whites are saying they no longer feel safe.

The cry for safety from so many whites is the cry of those who have experienced the centrality of whiteness as normal. As white experience ever so slightly moves away from the center, white discomfort is interpreted as no longer being safe. It really means that we are no longer being protected from our internalized racism and we are finding it harder to ignore the many ways that our white perspective is at the center of Unitarian Universalism.

As more voices of color attempt to come into that center, whites are likely to feel unsafe. The reality is that we are detoxing from the withdrawal of privilege. The cry for safety is really a power grab. It’s an attempt to return whiteness to the center.
For whites in our movement who want to move into this significant moment, we can’t let our guard down. If we misinterpret our discomfort as losing our safety, we will not only do harm to ourselves, we will do more harm to people of color who are taking huge risks right now. They are in a lot more danger than we are.
#faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

Let’s just get clear about something. The “crisis” we are in now isn’t because the white centering of Unitarian Universalist institutions has been unearthed. People of color, once again, spoke truth to power, for once enough whites listened and amplified their message, and that’s got a lot of other whites acting out. We are in a white entitlement controversy here. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a breaking through. And breaking throughs are messy. #faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

I get why there is so much pushback about using the term “white supremacy” to describe the culture in Unitarian Universalist institutions. We have been trained to see white supremacy as an overt expression of racism, replete with burning crosses, white hoods, confederate flags, lynchings and angry white people in black and white footage shouting racist epithets at black children trying to enter white schools. This allows liberal whites to distance themselves from racism and believe that we aren’t part of it. At least we aren’t calling people names, threatening their lives, or muttering under our breath.
I admit my stomach turned when I first heard the term “white supremacy” used to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism and our institutions. But I’ve reconsidered that response.
White supremacy is way bigger than the way we’ve been trained to understand it. White supremacy is a way of thinking that devalues the experiences, insights and lived reality of people of color. The consequences of this thinking goes beyond an abstract state of mind and has the real life impact of denying people of color a real voice with real power. Rarely is this culture explicit or even conscious in liberal white communities. It is implicit and unconscious. This is why I totally believe that those responsible for the latest hires are fully convinced they did nothing wrong and were not acting out of racial bias. However they were unconsciously acting out of racial bias.
Naming this as an act of white supremacy is pretty scary but it is the right thing to do. It sure has shocked a lot of whites into paying attention. Calling what happened “implicit bias” gives it a pass. It makes it softer than what it actually is, the devaluing of people of color and the denial of authority and power to people of color.
We are being very brave to call it what it is. In fact, it sets us apart from most liberal institutions which are in complete denial about the power of racism to shape their decisions and their processes. There is not one institution in this country that is not shaped by white supremacy, and that includes institutions run by people of color. We have all been indoctrinated into white supremacy thinking. Therefore there is no reason to feel shame or fear. It is not your fault. You are not stained. We are not irredeemable. Our Universalist heritage says that no one is left behind. Let’s anchor in that promise. I implore you to resist your urge to run away or to distance yourself from the term. Stay with us. Bend into the task at hand. Dare to be vulnerable.
Are there people who will stop giving financially because we are going down this path? You better believe it. They already are. Accept their decision and move on. Are there white people who will leave our churches over this? You bet. Accept their choice and trust that they will be held somewhere else. Are there people who will choose not to visit UU churches because of this difficult road we are walking? You bet. Not everyone is up to the task at hand. Unitarian Universalism was never for the faint of heart and that is as true today as it has been throughout our history.
But if you want to journey into wholeness, if you want to live into the transformative pain and possibility of this one incredible life you are living, if you want to experience a community that doesn’t shy away from calling truth to power, then Unitarian Universalism is for you and I welcome you into this time, this place, and this faith. This is an incredible opportunity we have and I want people like you sitting at the table of compassion and justice. #faithoverfear

June 22, 2017

I’m reflecting on the difference between saying your sorry and asking for forgiveness. Just saying you’re sorry means you get to keep your power. You decide when you’re going to do it and what you’re going to say.

Asking for forgiveness means being vulnerable and taking the risk that the person from whom you’ve asked forgiveness isn’t ready to give it. It means being ready for an answer that you may not have expected, an answer that may continue to ask something from you in addition to what you’ve offered and asked for.
We have multiple people in our association who expressed apologies on their way out the door. The apology is appreciated and I’m going to trust that the apology is sincere. But there is a next part, and that is asking for forgiveness.  It means staying at the table, even if your place at the table has shifted, and taking the risk of staying vulnerable and open to the ones you have harmed and the unpredictability of their response. It means giving away your power.
Asking for forgiveness is way risker than saying you’re sorry.  This is what it means to anchor in a brave space, rather than a safe space.

#faithoverfear

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Memorial Day for Pacifists

This is the sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI on Memorial Weekend, 2017j.  Thank you to Bob who gave me permission to share his story as I understand it.

Children’s Sermon

This weekend is Memorial Day, when we traditionally remember American soldiers who died in combat, meaning they died on the battlefield.  Memorial Day started after the Civil War, when this country went to war with itself and they fought about the future of the country and the future of slavery, when Blacks were enslaved by Whites, meaning they were owned by whites and worked for free for whites.

 

The Civil War lasted a long time and was a horrible experience   America was 31,000 000 people at the beginning of the Civil War.

There are estimates that 650 000 soldiers died in that war, and that 210 000 non-military people, meaning women, men who didn’t fight, and children, also died as a result of the war, usually from hunger or disease. This means that 1 in every 36 people in the United States died during the Civil War. Everyone loved someone who didn’t make it.

After the Civil war ended, it felt really important not to forget those people and they were looking for ways to grieve them.

Do you know what it means to grieve? It means that you are hurting inside because someone you love has died. It’s a special kind of hurt. When someone dies because they were killed in war, that is a special kind of grief that hurts the same and different.

After the Civil War, everyone was grieving someone.  No one wanted that kind of war to happen ever again on American soil. When it started, no one thought it would last that long or that so many people would die.

That is how Memorial Day started, because no one wanted to forget and everyone wanted to find a way to come together and be sad together and find hope together.

Traditionally Memorial Day is a time to remember American soldiers who died in war. But we are also a nation of immigrants, and if we are going to respect all the different kinds of people who live here, it’s also important that we remember that many Americans have people they loved who died serving other countries. And, because as Unitarian Universalists, we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of a country, we also need to remember that people all over the world are dying in war. Every day.  We need to remember those people too.

And there’s more. The way we fight wars has changed. It used to be that the different armies met each other on a battlefield and fought each other until one army surrendered.   But in the last 100 years, most wars are fought where ordinary people live, in their towns and their neighborhoods, in public spaces, on public transit, at concerts and festivals, and that means that in many wars, more civilians are dying than soldiers.  We need to remember them too, because they are also casualties of war.

This morning, as citizens of the world, we are going to take some time to name people from our families or friendship circles – military and civilians – who died because of war. It could be people we knew personally, or relatives who died that we may have never met but whose stories were told to us so that we would remember and know who we are. Let’s take some time to honor those people. If you have more than one name, that is just fine. We will welcome all the names.

We’ll start with ringing a bell and then a very short time of silence to gather our thoughts and think about the names we want to share. Then I’ll ring the bell again and we will start. When we’ve finished, I’ll ring the bell again and we’ll have a moment of silence to honor all the names that have been spoken.

Silence and Naming

Spirit of Life, this day remembers and acknowledges loss and so do we remember those whom we have loved and lost. We hold their names and their faces in our mind’s eye. We recall the gifts they gave to us through the strength of their being, the depth of their love, the courage of their dying, and the fullness of their living.

In the Holy Quiet of this hour, their names surround us and they live with us in blessed memory. Amen

 

Adults’ Sermon

 About a week ago, on a southern Louisiana Friday morning, the last of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans was taken down. Hundreds gathered to witness and the crowd was divided, a no mans land between them. The larger group celebrated, sang, cheered, and danced because they believed that the monument of General Robert E. Lee was put up to intimidate African Americans claiming their freedom after the civil war, erected as the white south erased slavery as the central reason for the confederate cause, replacing it with chivalry, loyalty, honor, heritage and pride. This was done even as Jim Crow laws rebuilt slavery as much as possible without actually being slavery.

In the months leading up to that Southern Louisiana morning, Black New Orleanians spoke about driving, every day, by these symbols of the Confederacy honoring those who had fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. They spoke about the toll it took. There was no doubt that the monuments needed to be taken down.

The smaller group, all white, stood mostly silent, angry and bitter, anchored in the mythology of a lost golden age. They said the monuments were about loyalty and pride, honor and valor, heritage and history.

It took two years to get these monuments taken down. The bitterness, the competing loyalties, the different versions of history displayed the divisions of race and power that rule this country. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu, in a speech that went viral last week, emphasized the power of symbols to support or take down systems of oppression while emphasizing that removing symbols should never be confused with the real work.

And you might be asking, what could this possibly have to do with Memorial Day?

It actually has a whole lot to with Memorial Day.

Memorial Day began as a southern observance. There are many stories, some competing, about how it started. One features Charlottesville Virginia Confederate women going to the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers – their husbands, fathers, sons – and laying flowers. Then they also laid flowers on Union graves. The practice grew, spreading north, and Union women went to the graves of their husbands, fathers, sons – and laid flowers on Union and Confederate graves.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and became a way to foster unity in a country that was terribly divided. Everyone could grieve, together, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. In unity, they held up that every soldier who died left behind a grieving family. And, it is certainly true that every soldier who died had years of living and loving stolen from them and their death broke the hearts of those who still lived.

It is also true that this unity was sought by white America – Union and Confederate – by pushing back the overarching reason for the war and raising up that soldiers on both sides died serving their country, serving a noble cause. It supported the rewriting of history happening south of the Mason-Dixon line. Decoration Day minimized that Confederate soldiers had been fighting to preserve the right of whites to brutalize and own blacks. The history of Memorial Day is one more example of how whites minimize the suffering of people of color in the search for unity. In reality it is not unity because it continues the violence against those who bear the brunt of oppression.

So there’s a connection between Memorial Day and those Confederate monuments. North and South both whitewashed the true reasons for the war in the pursuit of unity, whitewashed that the South was fighting for the right to continue the brutal enslavement of African Americans, held up a false unity that ignored the continued brutalization of black communities and black bodies. This positioned the White South to rewrite their loss as a tragedy, with themselves as the deposed gentlemen of a lost cause, while they simultaneously enacted all those Jim Crow Laws. And the White North said nothing, did nothing, believing it had done its duty by ending slavery.

 

So why raise all this stuff on a weekend that is known more commonly as the beginning of summer? The kids are finally out of school, vacation is here, hoards of us take to the great outdoors and the rest of us get the best deals on those Memorial Day mattress and appliance sales! Very few of us actually observe the day as it was meant to be observed. It’s a time for bbq’s, family, and sunshine. So why go there?

 

This is why. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people committed to integrity and truth telling. We often say that the truth sets us free. Unitarian Universalism values doubt and questioning as spiritual practices that lead us towards truth. There is nothing that cannot be questioned except that we hold compassion and freedom as the essence of being human, and that we must live at all times with respect for that radical interdependence of all things. Everything else is up for grabs, otherwise we turn too much stuff into idols, worshiping what is transient and rather than enduring.

This resistance to dogmas, to creeds, to idols and our commitment to truth as a path to freedom creates a healthy ambivalence towards anything that we are asked to simply accept.

I have experienced, you may have as well, among American Unitarian Universalists, that some of us have a complicated relationship with patriotism. This struggle has become keener since November when white nationalism was used win the Presidency. We have experienced patriotism being used as a tool to harden people against each other. There is tremendous social pressure to adopt a patriotism rooted in American exceptionalism, which disrespects other nations and peoples by loudly trumpeting American superiority. This kind of patriotism is not consistent with Unitarian Universalist values.  It is not rooted in a deep compassion for all of life.

So I have some questions. To what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to honor our Unitarian Universalist faith and love a country? How do we honor those who die in battle and hold up that not all battles are rooted in values that affirm life?

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say where I am coming from when I ask these questions. I was raised Mennonite, and in the Mennonite faith in its purest form, it is forbidden to love a country. Patriotism is a sin against God and we are never to let love of country supersede love for God. So the whole idea of asking God to bless a country? Blasphemy. Pledging allegiance to a flag or putting your hand over your heart to sing the national anthem? Idolatry. When patriotism becomes akin to religion and is then used to stoke public sentiment for military action, it is an abuse of faith. While I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, the teachings are in me and I have brought them to my Unitarian Universalist faith. I don’t believe that patriotism is a sin, I do believe you can love a country, but I firmly believe that no patriotism should ever supersede our commitment to living our principles. There is no nation higher than our core values of compassion and freedom. No nation has the right to demand blind allegiance, to define what allegiance is, or expect us to betray our values in the name of allegiance. Our love of nation should always be conditional.  Our commitment to our values should never be compromised.

At this time in Unitarian Universalism, we are in a place of waking up to how white supremacy culture is embedded in our beliefs and our institutions and our nation. Since the Ferguson Uprising, when black leaders took the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown, police brutality and a racist criminal justice system, Unitarian Universalist people of color are insisting that white Unitarian Universalists, if they are committed to solidarity with people of color, face the truth that whiteness is centered in how Unitarian Universalism happens and that this deeply impacts people of color in our congregations.

Whiteness is centered in the way patriotism happens in the United States, and the white experience shaped how Memorial Day started and what it has become. To be in solidarity with people of color means waking up to these realities and making new choices.

So to what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to love a country that is rooted in white supremacy culture? How do we honor our Unitarian Universalist values, give our thanks to those who have died in our battles and hold up that every battle that has ever claimed American lives has been wed to goals that both affirm life and deny it?

I want to tell you about a man whose journey, I think, offers a way to walk into these dilemmas and find some of that truth that leads to freedom.

Bob is a member of the congregation I serve in Quincy IL where 25% of the members are veterans or family of veterans. Most of those who served in combat have PTSD. I visit Bob almost every time I’m in Quincy. He’s a Marine. He served two tours in Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant, leading his troops deep into battle. Bob always wears his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. He runs the War Museum at the Veterans Home. His identity is shaped by being a veteran.

Bob also believes that the War was an abuse of American military power. We had no right being there. He is haunted by memories and burdened by the deaths he witnessed. He speaks of the abuses committed by his troops. He struggles with how his valuing of human life changed while he served and the choices he was compelled to make through those mutated values. Vietnam is the raw matter of his life woven into a tapestry of regrets.

Bob returned from Vietnam and served as a police chief, a CIA officer and a professor of criminology. He is convinced of the complete corruption of our government and law enforcement. He struggles to find the good in humanity.

And yet, he comes to worship every Sunday, wearing his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. Despite his cynicism about human nature he is loyal to a religious community that celebrates the human spirit and promises itself to compassion, justice and truth. Bob is kind and generous.

What I have learned from knowing Bob is that it is a shallow thing to honor those who have served and be silent about the goals of the combat itself. To raise up Bob as a hero erases his moral struggle and the truth that thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died because America flexed its muscle and couldn’t figure out how to stop flexing it.

This is the thing. Military might cannot create peace, freedom and democracy; it cannot end ethnic hatred or racism, otherwise racism would have ended with the civil war. Military might can achieve strategic goals. Sometimes it can provide a container for change, it can stop people from killing each other, but it does not create justice.  Justice doesn’t happen at the end of the barrel of a gun . It happens in relationships of equals – in council chambers and kitchen tables, in the workplaces and schools, in our friendships and our congregations.

So let’s go back to those Confederate monuments which attempted to honor those who fought on the Confederate side by erasing the truth of their objectives.  Let’s remember that this is the original context for our modern Memorial Day celebrations which hold up the sacrifice of those who died in battle without holding up the complexity of the goals of those wars.

I propose that we continue to hold the utmost compassion for all who lost their lives in war, and that the magnitude of the loss escalates when those lives were lost pursuing objectives that defy compassion, virtue and reason. To be a compassionate people means to center the voices of those most impacted by those objectives. Think of those Confederate monuments, whose story should be centered?   The Confederate soldiers who died protecting slavery, or African Americans who had been held in the terror of slavery for centuries and who are still held in the terror of state sanctioned violence?

This is a different kind of love for country. A different kind of compassion for those who serve. It is a different kind of patriotism, which calls in rather than separates and divides, which carries us into paradox rather than a simplistic unity that erases suffering and inequality.

This is, perhaps, part of the truth that will set us free.

 

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