Friday, December 13, 2019

Book Review. – Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

I am not often surprised by a book, but this book surprised me in a fascinating way and I loved it. Let me explain. Lila is a minor character from the book Gilead. Gilead was a nice book about a preacher from a small town in Iowa. Both this book, Lila and the book “Home” are books about other minor characters in Gilead. Home was about the wayward son of the preachers friend who was a retired minister and neighbor. Lila, is the story about the Preacher’s wife. I knew that going in. I was always curious about her in Gilead. We didn’t learn much about her other then she was much younger then the Preacher, and not as formally educated, and they had a child together. That left a voyeuristic curiosity to her backstory Let alone her character even in Gilead.  She was always quiet, in the background, seemingly stern worried about her husband’s health.

In Lila, we learn about her upbringing and how they came to be together. And it was totally unexpected. Perhaps that says more about me and my bias towards imagining characters…That is the big question of the book. Why do things happen the way they do. The book covers deep religious topics such as grace, redemption, sin and life after death from the perspective of Lila who knew little of formal religion before meeting the Preacher John Ames. Her asking him very raw basic questions about religion and faith and God seems to light a spark in him. It also speaks about his willingness to recognize and risk love at the same time assuming it would not last.   

We meet Lila as a young child as she is being kidnapped by someone, from what we are led to believe is a dangerous situation. I say we are led to believe because we really do not know and all Lila knows is what her rescuer/kidnapper Doll tells her. She lived most of her life living day to day with a group of people just trying to survive as itinerant workers . Part of why Doll joins this group is a need to stay under the radar for fear that people will be after her for taking Lila.

Through Lila’s memories, we experience her deepest interior thoughts and how she developed into the person she is. It tells about their life on the road, and what happens after the depression hits and their group of people disband. How that type of life led to a life of loneliness and fear. Yet it also spoke to the simplicity of life. One year Doll took her off there road to go to school and when asked what country she lived in she spoke of the beautiful fields and trees. Because what information do we really need to know to survive.  The story highlighted the fragileness and harshness of life dependent on seasons and good will of others. There was a freeness about it, but it was also a reminder of how that kind of freedom offers limited options and support when things go bad. Being someone who has moved away from “home” and from a people who have been forced over time to move,  I understand the yearning to be in a place where people have known your people for generations. It is something I will never have, but I like the feeling of it.

When your focus is on surviving day to day, you do live in the moment, do what you have to, but you have to always be on your guard and lack the ability to trust others. After the apparent death of Doll (I say apparent, because the sequence of events would lead us to believe that, but we don’t really know. Another message from the book is that we really do not know much. Anyway after Lila is alone it tells of her hard time in St. Louis. It is interesting that the book portrays St. Louis as a place where sin happens. She escapes her difficult situation. But there is also an interesting perspective of feeling security for the known, and finding happiness even in the smallest things when you are suffering even if they are an illusion. And that leads to complexity of her settling down and marrying John Ames. Imagining it is an illusion, being on guard always for something bad to happen, or fear of doing something bad that will upset others. How her experiences in the world made it hard to trust anything or anyone, even her own thoughts. Fear never leaves you when it is deep in your bones. The book offer the possibility that if we can live through the sufferings of our life, a new life can be created that offers a balm to our suffering, with the patient love of family and community.  

I’m listing some quotes from the book.  It is a way to keep some poignant thoughts in the forefront of my thoughts. :

“Lila “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that thing that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something. Then why wont you say how you know that? Do you just talk that way because youre a preacher? This kind of thinking made a change in her loneliness, made it more tolerable for her. And she knew how dangerous that could be. She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn tany different from one year to the next. It was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same”

“When folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive, that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like youre there, youre doing something”

Lila        “I don’t trust nobody”
Ames    “No wonder you’re tired”

Lila        “What isn’t strange when you think about it.”
             
Lila        “Existence can be fierce”
             
Lila        “To put everything else away from her, because that ache was, first and last where she came from and what waited for her.”             

Lila        “Im still thinking. Maybe Ill tell you when Im done”
Ames    “But  you might never get done, you know, Thinking is endless”

Lila        “How strange it seemed to be at peace”

Lila        “You’d think a man as careful as this Job might have had a storm cellar’

About going to the movies
Lila        “The best part was always to sitting there in the dark, seeing what she had never seen anywhere before, and mostly believing it.”

Ames    “Joy and loss exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they re all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not acculuate like money or memory, or like years.”
Lila        “Near as I can tell you were wanting to reconcile thing bys saying they cant be reconciled”

Lila        “After a while it may have been my loyalty I was loyal to”

Lila        “Ive been tramping around with the heathens. Theyre just as good an anybody, so far as I can see. They sure don’t deserve no hellfire”

Lila        “The best things that happen I’d never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can”

Lila        That’s how it is. Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in the at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement too. 

Monday, December 09, 2019

A Caring Place


Talking about Light and love, we have to admit that sometimes this day and age, the light seems to go at times. When this happens it requires us to shine a collective light upon it, first to bring awareness of the coming darkness and second to rekindle the light within, just as we light our chalice each week. And so I deviate from my regularly scheduled homily:
This past week there was a forum on Immigration at a Christian Church in Bettendorf that included an invited speaker who was known to be a white nationalist and avowed anti-semite who not surprisingly spewed forth xenophobic and racist comments. More surprisingly People listened to this person for twenty minutes asked questions and applauded. Clearly most in attendance agreed. I felt a darkness rising in my soul reading about this.  It is important that we shine a light upon this darkness. To bring awareness to this hatred for what it is. We must not be silent in the face of such hatred.
This forum also included speeches by those who the organizers titled “angel parents,” That title signified individuals whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. I will point out that immigrants both legal and undocumented commit significantly less crimes percentage wise then citizens.  Of course the death of their children are tragic and I do not in any way want to minimize that. I want to repeat, the death of their children is tragic. However calling them angel parents seem to signify that the death of their children are more important then the death of other children whose deaths were also tragic and preventable.
 
·       The death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant, who died in border patrol custody due to neglect was tragic and preventable. Is his life less worthy then the angel parent’s children?

·       The infant mortality rate of African American children in our country is more then double that of white children and that is tragic and preventable. Are their lives less worthy? 

·       The death of our citizens especially children due to gun violence is tragic and preventable. Are their lives less valuable?
I could go on and on. Our principles tell us that they are all valuable. Every single one of them.
What was even more troubling for me about this forum is that it was sponsored and created by a teen high school political group. In an interview, the founder of this group who attends west high school said (from the QC Times)
“that his interest in illegal immigration comes from his Christian faith, particularly the belief that Christians should “love thy neighbor” — namely, the families affected by illegal immigration.”
That to me is a very narrow understanding of or even I would say a perversion of the Christian faith and rejection of the teachings of Jesus and the Jewish Torah. From the Christian scriptures of Luke after Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, he is asked 
“and who is my neighbor”, Jesus replies.  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”
He then tells of a the Samaritan, a stranger (an immigrant) who saves the man and then takes the injured man to the innkeeper and paid for him to be cared for. I was moved by a question that Martin Luther King asked.  King focuses the story on the question as to why do we even allow a Jericho Road to exist?  King states
“for it is not enough to aid a wounded man on the Jericho Road; it is also important to change the condition which make robbery possible.” 
Do we believe that robbery is something that is inherent to human nature?  The first principle of Unitarian Universalism states we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person. 
So no, I believe robberies occur because there is economic injustice, a lack of opportunity, and lack of hope for a better future.  If we change the conditions, we change the results. vIs our focus on a purely free market road, where the stronger person or robbers merely devours the weak and the honest persons? Or do we want safe roads, so all will have an opportunity to travel down them.  The immigrants who are coming here are walking their own Jericho road. Are we going to help them? Or are we going to abandon them to die on the side of the road or in cages on our border. The United States is still separating families and caging innocent children. Are we going to work to create conditions in the world. where immigrants do not need to come here, or are we going to look away at our actions that cause such an environment to exist. We can choose to live a different way a better way, so everyone’s life is considered worthy. Jesus says in his parable of the good Samaritan says that immigrants are our neighbors.  Who is our neighbor? Everyone is!!
Alice (co-leader of the service who gave the first homily for those of you reading this) also mentioned Hannukah, Starting later this month, people of the Jewish Faith will be celebrating the Hannukah, also known as the Festival of lights Hannukah is the celebration of the Jewish people’s overthrow of their oppressors in 2nd century bce. The symbol of the holiday is a menorah (PPT) which has a candle for each of the 8 days of the holiday celebration. The ninth candle is called the Shammash, the helper candle to that is used to light the other candles. Interestingly Shamash, in ancient Mesopotamian culture is the name of the solar God, who exercised the power of light over darkness and evil. It became known as the god of justice and equity. Whether coincidence or not, The symbolism of the shamash, is that we have to be the Shammash, We have to exercise the power of light. Just as one candle is used to light others, so to do we have to share our light with each other and with others. And we have to realize sometimes we need others to help us keep our light burning. We need each other to do this.  We need to have a realization that there is much we can learn from each other and we should not always assume we have all the answers.  We should shine the light of truth and love on ourselves and look for the light and love within others.  We should search and accept truth and love wherever we find it, both within and/or without for it is truth in love that we seek, not just our truth, but the truth. 
And I ask you to remember these thoughts as we think about our chalice lighting words. The Flaming Chalice is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. It is the symbol of our search for truth (in the light of truth), the symbol of acceptance, (the warmth of love), and the symbol of lifting each other up and seeing the best in each other. (to sustain and inspire) That is what I would hope you think of when you see this flame.
So let us dedicate ourselves, let us dedicate our hearts, to take the right actions, to do the hard work that needs to be done to Build the Beloved Community It is through our actions as a Congregation and as a religion, that others will see our light, that others will come to see and know us.  And by shining the light we will see the light in others And then we will come to know others
The future is not always linear and it is often messy, but this is the life and the world we are given.
Let us go forth and care for it and each other. May it be so


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Two Reviews – “Fleabag” – Amazon Prime Video and “The Irishman” – Netflix


Fleabag – a 9 out of 10 on the jaywo scale
I first heard of this show after seeing its star Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Saturday Night Live as host. I thought it was one of the best openings I had seen in years, and so I decided to watch this show. I have had Amazon Prime but had never once watched its videos, mostly using it for free shipping of books. First I have to say this show has very raunchy language and talks explicitly about sex. If that does not turn you off, (or perhaps that turns you on) this is a funny poignant quirky series. Phoebe’s character uses the camera as a fourth wall very effectively. The show centers around the lives of two sisters. It has had two seasons. Season two comes to a neat conclusion as it is not guaranteed to return for a third season. The show deals with how the sisters and their father deal with (or don’t) with the death of their mother (wife).  Also it deals with the death of the lead characters friend. As I think about it, the lead character is never addressed by name in the series. That in and of itself is quirky about the show. I’ll have to think more about that. Clearly it was intentional.  The show deals with how humans deal with grief, love, loss, family relationships and our search for happiness. It shows our human frailties, and our ability to recover and rebound. At times particularly in season two, I found myself laughing out loud and cringing almost at the same time. The show often focus on Phoebe’s character’s romantic relationships and particularly in season 2 her attraction to and pursuit of a priest.  . I highly recommend it. I binge watched all of season two on vacation. It is really worth seeing.

“The Irishman” –A  6 out of 10
I just watched this on vacation. This movie has had a  lot of brouhaha due to its limited theatrical release (I guess to be eligible for the Oscars)  and then almost direct to Netflix. It was directed by Scorsese and it has a great cast of actors. Al Pacino overacts (as usual) as Jimmy Hoffa, and that works for the role as Hoffa was a larger then life character in real life. Robert Deniro underacts (as usual) as hitman for the mob whose life this movie is based on. Joe Pesci as well plays a great understated role as a mob boss.  The story is told from Deniro’s perspective, telling his life story in retrospect from some sort of retirement home. First I will have to say the movie is long… Almost three and 1/2 hours long. It seemed like a greatest hits of gangster films. It told in a very methodical fashion the rise and fall of this particular gangster and his long standing relationship with Hoffa and the union.  I guess my biggest complaint is that it was too methodical and not dramatic enough. I never get a sense of why he was the way he was or did the things he did. Its just the way he was, shaped by the violence of being in combat in war. But many people  went to war and did not end up living this kind of life. It did not romanticize the life, pointing out the violent deaths of many of the characters. In fact, there are no good characters here.  I liked the cinematography and period pieces of the film. Scorsese always is great at that.  The last half hour of the movie made up for more of its tedious moments. As he looks back on his life, he is talking to a young nurse who did not even know who Jimmy Hoffa was. It brought about a realization for the character (and thus for me) about how fleeting life can be. Things we think are important in the moment are trivialized and forgotten in history. Our motives and decisions which we believe may be good, really lead to much harm. It also talks about who we align ourselves with in life. Who we choose to protect and who we choose to sacrifice. In the end he is alone and he has spent little time building relationships with those who would love him. Perhaps that is the message. It is not what we do, but how we love in the world that matters. (I'm not saying that is the message of the movie, but the message I choose to take from it)  The movie gives answers to who killed Hoffa and hints at who killed JFK (Both of these are long held belief by those who follow these stories over the years) if you choose to believe it. It was worth seeing just to see Pacino and Deniro together in a movie and in general I enjoy gangster movies. But I do not think it is Oscar worthy.  


Meanderings while walking on the beach while on vacation during Thanksgiving


As I walked the beach, I thought about the waves rolling in and out. As the tide goes out it leaves some dead shells, and some that cling to the tide to head back out to the gulf. It is now illegal to take a live shell. But for years our family would take live shells and boil them (there is some sea creature living within it). We would create shell lamps and shell mirrors, and anything shells. Looking back, I wonder if these creatures suffered. If shell creatures have shell creature families. So I can rationalize killing a creature for sustenance for myself, but to kill just to create beauty seems hard to justify. Now we just scavenge for dead shells.                                                                         

With the incoming and outgoing tide, some shell creatures live, some die, some get washed away. The more adept shell creatures I imagine hides itself better so as not to be picked (they dig themselves down in the sand). Such it is in life. We live our lives. Some are more adept then others. We live for awhile, we die, some people get swept away by the tides of life. Some dig deep and fight like hell for life. And although each shell and its existence is unique, the tide coming in and out, does so like clockwork, every day, it has a pattern that affects the shells (and I imagine all sea life). Over time the waves have a discernible pattern that we can determine and predict. I wonder and imagine that sea life can as well and that helps them exist in their world. 

But also that pattern of tides  and gravity tells me of the interdependence of all things that were created and came to be. Even if there is a scientific explanation for it all, it is amazing. And if there are amazing things that create patterns in and of the waves I must wonder if our lives and our universe have similar patterns.  Certainly in my life I have sensed repeating patterns. With more experience and wisdom over time I have learned to better manage those down cycles and take advantage of the upcycles.  What patterns does the universe show us? 

It is true that patterns get disrupted, whether that be by an asteroid crashing, or climate crisis affecting migratory patterns of birds, (and many other patterns) or lights on beaches affecting patterns of baby sea turtles. So too in our life we have patterns interrupted through unexpected tragedies. I do note that I only to point to interrupted patterns due to the negative, not the positive. But I imagine, a pattern can be interrupted by an act of courage, an act of kindness or the sight of beauty. 

If I noticed anything on the beach, even with the pattern of the waves and the tide, is that even while that is predictable, everything in every moment is changing. What shells come in, what
Shells go out. My interaction with the waves and shells although might not affect the tide, but it affects that wave and those shells I interact with. (and of course there are things we can do to affect the direction of water). The weather beyond our control affects the pattern too. 

I admit it is a little depressing thought that there is a tide in our life and the universe, a constantly repeating direction that can be altered, often impacted, but without major intervention cannot be changed.  On the other hand I could be wrong. Or perhaps we as some scientists speculate are part of a simulation created by aliens (which would explain patterns), but I do not put much stock in that (because if we become aware of the simulation they will turn it off) 

Or perhaps it is enough to be the creature that digs deep and fights for survival to make a difference in the sea of life, even when it cant change the whole tide. Perhaps if enough creatures dig deep enough they can change the course of the tide. Perhaps it gives ours lives purpose. You can not count on an asteroid to change the world, so perhaps we should try an act of courage, acts of kindness and/or create something beautiful.   You just have to dig deep and survive and work to change the tide.  This is what I thought when I took a walk on the beach this Thanksgiving morning. I am not sure I even make sense of it all, but it is what I experienced.  What did you think about this morning. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

No Expectations


There once was an Eagle egg that fell out of its nest. The egg was found by a farmer and put it under hen, and when it was born the eagle was raised with the chickens. It learned to do what chickens do, it learned to pick at dirt for worms and insects, it learned to cackle and cluck. It tried to fly but without anyone teaching it how never got far off the ground. I hear it may have even crossed the road for unknown reasons. One day while hanging out with his chicken friends, high above it saw a majestic bird flying, and he asked his friends what it was and the chicken said it was an eagle, birds of the sky, we are chickens birds of the  ground. And the baby eagle felt something yearn within itself, felt that it should fly like that majestic bird. Now there are different versions of the story, one where the chickens laugh at the baby eagle and told it it was impossible for it to fly, and so the eagle lived and died as a chicken.Another version has it following its inner call and flying to the sky.
The point of the story is that so often we see ourselves based on our circumstances and what others expectations of us are. Sometimes we are so powerful and we do not even recognize it. We get so caught up based on being told what we are. Not that there is anything wrong being a chicken. There is honor in a chicken doing what a chicken does. But we do ourselves no honor if we are eagles and we act like a chicken just to make others feel safe and secure.
So I ask you to consider what is your authentic self. What is unique about yourself and what is the purpose of your life. No one else can answer that question for you, and no one else should answer that for you, but how you answer that will determine the course of your life for however long it may be.  My colleague Jake Morrel in the retelling of  the story talks about the difference between the chicken and eagle in the face of a storm. When chickens sense a coming storm – they try to hide, make themselves small. The Eagle though spreads its wings and flys right to the storm, and uses the power of the wind to propel it and flies above it the storm.  When the eagle flies high it can see a larger picture, beyond the storm  
Looking from the larger perspective it can see beyond their own immediate needs and know that there are more important issues from a larger perspectives. It can see that farms need rain, to let the crops to grow. That rainbarrels need filling to provide drinking water for the community and that although uncomfortable, soon this storm will pass and it can see clear skies beyond the storm.   Now the Chickens on the ground don’t have a perspective above the storm.
Sometimes you get so deep into something you cant see above the storm. The truth is all of us are sometimes chickens and sometimes eagles. So how can we be more like eagles. Flying above the storm requires taking risks trusting that the wind will reinforce its efforts.
So first and foremost we must be willing to trust each other. Even sometimes when it doesn’t seem possible. Because all of us in life have at some time been betrayed by trusting.
Sometimes we just have to weather the storm. And even eagles cant get too comfortable just coasting on the wind…for a gust can easily come up and unend you, so you must stay aware of all around you and keep your eye on the ever changing horizon with nothing given and nothing certain.
So instead of hiding from the storm, I invite you to risk flying into the storm, into the storm of our fears. No one can do it for you or for us. Its not easy, but once you have done it once, and survived – you are more willing to try again. Richard Rohr wrote “we do not think ourselves into new ways of living we live our ways into new ways of thinking.”So I ask you to consider what is the high purpose for which you were born. What is the higher purpose for us as a Congregation to live out. Let us discern that. Let us create that.
Eaglets doesn’t come out flying. They start by hopping from the nest to branch to branch taking little test flights. Sometimes it takes its initial flight.  To learn how to fly fully, you have to practice, but at some point you have to try to fly. Sometimes you just have to trust the world that you can fly. This is what we can be for you as a congregation and this is what we can be as a congregation. We are here to help you do that hard thing. To help you through that hard thing.
Let us risk being who we truly are and who we want to become. Dare to serve this high purpose
And soar with the wind and see where it takes you With no expectation, but your own. May the winds take us where we need to be.

Part II
Reading from Thich Nhat Hanh’s, book –“ being peace” - “We do so much, we run so quickly, the situation is difficult, and many people say, "Don't just sit there, do something." But doing more things may make the situation worse. So you should say, "Don't just do something, sit there." Sit there, stop, be yourself first, and begin from there.” 

This month our theme was expectations. I’ve talked about what it means to be a people of expectation, our expectations of each other as members and how we treat each other, and as well expectations of and our covenants as Unitarian Universalists. This past Thursday as we do every last Thursday of every month we had a small group discussion on the theme of expectations. We talked about many things including the potential downside of expectations. How expectations can create fear, or how fear can create false expectations. How expectations can lead to suffering from not achieving them and if so how do we determine realistic expectations.
I think too often it is the fear of not achieving the expectation, that fear of pain the fear of
disappointment, that we sometimes do not even attempt things. I admit when I was young I was full of fear. Some real fears and some imagined fears. Growing up, I would fear walking down certain streets and meeting the wrong people who would do me harm, that was a real fear. I would fear not getting an A on a test as that was the expectation for me growing up.  Thinking my whole future depended on getting that A, that was an imagined fear. As I grew up, fear
became a way of being. Would that girl like me, Was I  good enough,  Would I have enough money at the end of the month to make the rent. Fear is an emotional force. It can lead you to protect yourself. Both your emotional self and your physical self. I worked hard in school, and then at work so I was sure to keep my job and make the rent.
But fear also for a long time protected my ego from being hurt and prevented me from trying new opportunities. As I talked about in the small group, I started to overcome my fears through my Buddhist teachings and practice that helped me deal with not having attachment to outcomes. It is in the attachment to the outcome of the expectation, not the expectation itself that causes suffering. The danger of giving up expectations, is that we equate it with quitting, with giving up.
I would argue that what we need to give up is our attachment to the illusion that we can control all aspects of our lives. Our desire to control our destiny and the reality that we cannot fully do so is what I believe leads to suffering.  More importantly I think we need to reinforce is that despite our lack of total control, our life has meaning, and that how we go about living our life has meaning. Its about knowing who you are in the world and what your purpose is, which may change over time.  We are so often worrying about how things will end up that we don’t take the time to enjoy the process When our vision of our world, of the world doesn’t work out exactly the way we want we often curl back into ourselves like the chicken in the earlier story.
But it doesn’t have to be that way I first integrated this concept of non attachment to outcome in simple ways. For years especially being a New York Jet football fan, I found myself getting very depressed after every game they lost in some horrible fashion. I think Chicago Cub fans can relate to this as well. After a while I realized how silly this was being emotionally
attached to the outcome of a football game. Now I still root for them to win, but notice I said attached to the outcome. Now of course I used this as a simple example that did not really cost me anything to give up my attachment. Sometimes overcoming a fear involves training, experience and yes having faith. 
When my children were younger, I took tae kwon do lessons with them. I actually made it up to Brown  Belt with two black stripes before I blew my knee out dancing at a Christmas Party and at about the same time, my youngest gave it up so I never went back. But I remember the first time when I was asked to break boards with my hand. Now I was well into my earlier career that involved a lot of typing on a keyboard and the thought of breaking my hand terrified me. However as my teacher reminded me, I had been practicing, and I was not just using my hand, but the entire energy of my body and if he didn’t think I could do it, he would not have
invited me to try. 
I thought that was a great metaphor. Yes it was my hand that would hit the board. But how I placed my body, how I leveraged my weight, how I followed through, all of which I had been practicing, along my teachers encouragement allowed me to realize I was capable of it, because I was putting all of myself into it, not just my hand. So I trusted and went ahead and quite easily broke the board. That is no different then as growth as human beings. We practice how to be better human beings.  To become better, to gain confidence, we have to put our whole self into it. We have to practice. We cannot just try something once a year and then expect we can do it on call. It takes ongoing consistent work listening to others being encouraged and encouraging others to gain confidence and work towards our potential. And just like after I broke the first board, I gained confidence the next time I tried it. And over time as the number of boards to break increased, I wasn’t always successful. It took more practice.
And so it is in life. As we try more advanced things or we are faced with more difficult situations, or different storms, it gets harder and we either don’t have the skills or experience to deal with it. Whether it is playing a difficult piece of chimes music or dealing with racial conflict, When we are faced with choices, we can quit, or we can find a new way. We can keep practicing. Sometimes the method that got us to where we are isn’t the same method what we need to get  us where we need to go. We have to not be attached  to how things were or what we expected, because that will lead to suffering. Because we are not and never will be that Congregation any more. We have come to far and changed too much We must be able to adapt to see things as they are .
I was doing a crossword puzzle the other week and the clue was “it might be shouted before “Fire” the answer was a three letter word. I’m thinking: run, omg, aaa, no the answer was “Aim” as in Ready, Aim, Fire. We so often are in the mode of fire ready aim.  So I encourage us, especially in these uncertain times, in the storm of life, when the way is not clear and what we have tried is not working, we should remember the words of Thich Nhat Hanh “sit,  stop, be yourself first, and begin from there” Take time to reflect, and find your center, your self, your best self and then we must remember the end of the quote “begin.”  If all you do is that, just sit and find yourself and never begin then really nothing is accomplished. We have to try new techniques, new knowledge, new understandings. New ways of being.
And just like the teacher and others around me encouraged me, helped me believe in myself, that is what we must do for each other. All of us. Encourage each other to be our best selves, remind each other of the inherent worth and dignity of each other, Our Unitarian Universalist sources include Jewish and Christian Teachings that ask us to Love our neighbors as ourselves.  So I invite you to love each other, love them for all of who they are, in their wholeness, with their joys and sorrows, and by loving your neighbor in that way, therefore you are loving yourself in the same way. May you love yourself deeply and wholly for who you are, who you hope to be and who you end up being however that may be. It will not be what you expect. But the process of love can always be there and that is worth preserving.   So I invite you to  break out of the fearfulness that binds you and constricts your ability to be happy .

As author Anais Nin wrote, 
“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” 
Believe in yourself,
Believe in this Congregation
You and the Congregation are one and the same.
May you blossom.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Sports and Social Justice


Each summer I like to do one service that is somewhat tangentially related to sports. I was thinking about why I do this. One reason is the fact that some people treat sports very religiously and I am curious to see why. The Super Bowl is the most watched show in America. In fact of the top 19 most watched shows all time in America 18 of them were super bowls. #9 was the final episode of MASH, which personally I thought was anticlimactic and a bit schmaltzy. However I think the main reason is that sports were a big part of my life growing up, playing them, watching them in person and on tv. My interaction with sports helped shape my life.  And helps shape the lives of many Americans. Playing sports, which for me these day consists mostly of golf, and maybe shuffleboard (is that a sport?), but throughout my life sports tests the limits of my mind body connection. Particularly golf, can I get my body to do what my mind tells it.
What I have learned over the years and this is a good lesson in general, is that sometimes, we should stop thinking so much, and trust our inner self to do what it knows it needs to do. There is an old saying in golf. It doesn’t build character it exposes it. So sports are a way to learn about ourselves.
Sports taught me that practicing something helps me improve.
Sports taught me teamwork, patience, persistence, as well as both the limitations of my ability and my ability occasionally to exceed my limitations .
More often than not, due to my lack of athleticism, I learned how to endure the agony of defeat, and how to get up and try again and when not to.
I learned injuries heal.
All lessons I still use to this day.
Occasionally though, things would work out and we would win and I would learn to understand what victory feels like and know it was possible.

And sports were a metaphor for life.
It has a beginning, it has an end, but it is not the final score that counts, it is what happens during the game that counts. 
Do we practice and train for what life brings us,
Do we work hard to reach our goals?
Do we give life all we have?
When the going gets tough, do we quit, or do we persevere. 
If the outcome seems certain, do we quit and stop playing hard or do we maintain our integrity and continue to give 100% knowing there is no shame in losing if we have done our best. 
And being short and from the Bronx, I always envisioned myself as an underdog. Perhaps that is just one reason why I hated the Yankees and loved the Mets growing up. I mean rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the Empire in Star Wars.  Its true underdogs don’t win as often, but since I viewed myself as an underdog (whether that was true or not, it was how I viewed myself), rooting for underdogs, gave me hope that victory was possible for myself in a world lacking of hope. Occasionally as the dog days of summer ended, and the autumn leaves started blowing, my faith was rewarded me with the Mets going to the World Series. (you will notice I am wearing orange and blue the color of the mets)
A couple of weeks ago, listening to a podcast Pod Save America, I remembered another reason I loved Sports. It was a reminder that sports taught me about sacrifice, risk taking and how sports can be a mirror to America and can be a catalyst that can lead to change and justice.  The podcast interviewed United States US Women’s Soccor co-captain Megan Rapeeno.

This is her on the screen in this iconic photo showing her exaltation after scoring a goal. Now I have to admit, I am not a big soccer fan (men or women’s soccer). I know it is the most popular sport in the world, but I didn’t play it and in truth it just seems liked a slow version of hockey to me.  But I had recently heard about her only because she had recently been in a twitter fight with the President and the Women’s team was playing for the World Cup of Soccer.
Until preparing for this service I did not realize what an illustrious career she has had. She has been on the US National Team starting in 2003.  She is also part of a lawsuit that is asking for equal pay for Women soccer players compared to the mens national team not only for doing the same work at less pay, but also due to the fact that the women are bringing in as much and in some times more money then the men.  This is the same argument that has been played out in corporations across America. Sports is shining a mirror upon America. It is more then just money for themselves though. They are also fighting for better treatment of the women’s team, including investment into youth teams, Investments into coaching and investments into facilities for women.
It is a good question that is being asked more and more as we hold up sports as a mirror to our society. Where do we put our investment?  Who and what we put our time and investment in makes a difference in the world. With that thought in mind, at this time that I invite you to put your investment into our Congregation as we take our offering.

Part II
In regard to the aforementioned twitter fight I mentioned, it started when Megan Rapeeno was interviewed and said if they won the World Cup she would not go to the White House. (she used a little more colorful language then that but that would not be appropriate in service.)  The President replied among many other things,
“Megan should win first before she talks. .”
It reminded me of when a conservative commentator told Lebron James to shut up and dribble when he spoke up about police brutality. For a country that values the first amendment, some people in power really do struggle when they are criticized. There is an attempt at silencing, an attempt to demean the person just because they play a sport and dare to speak their truth.
But in truth sport personalities have been at the forefront of social change in our country. 
When I was very young I remember Muhammad Ali, by most and certainly by himself, considered the greatest boxer of all time, and in his later life he was beloved by many, but that was not always the case. In the 1960s he refused to be inducted into the Vietnam war due to his religious beliefs about not killing people. His words shone a mirror upon our country and our race relations.


Ali faced a lot of backlash for his refusal. There was also a darker side to this backlash by the government. Ali’s draft status was  changed to active only after he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhamad Ali.  When he refused to go, they stripped him of his boxing title and made it difficult for him to fight and earn money. He knew he was going to have to sacrifice his career if he took this path. He could have negotiated a deal to do a few exhibition matches, or non combat duty as part of being in the armed services, but he stood up for his principles and accepted the consequences.


This was a time of great upheaval in our country. In the 1968 Olympics Gold and Bronze medalist Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands in a black power salute to show solidarity for black power movements, stood barefoot to bring awareness to black poverty and wore a back scarf to symbolize lynchings of black people. What is often not talked about is the silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia. He asked Smith and Carlos how he could support them. They suggested he wear a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was a sign of solidarity with the fight against racial injustice. Now Smith and Carlos were initially thrown out of the Olympics for this and faced death threats back home. Eventually though they were reinstated and had successful careers.
Norman on the other hand despite being qualified for future Olympics, Australia would never allow him to compete again, in fact one year they refused to send any sprinter to the Olympics as a way to snub him. He never really recovered from the experience. When he died in 2006 Smith and Carlos who had remained friends were pall bearers at his funeral. Even being an ally has consequences.

 I also want to raise the name of Curt Flood. I was a young boy maybe five years old when I met Curt Flood. It was just in passing. My uncle had some business with Shea Stadium and he got me into the dugout before a Mets game. To a little kid all these ballplayers were giants. It was early before the game so only a few players were there.  I remember Curt Flood took time to say hello to me when everyone else ignored me. Never forget the impact you can have on a child just being friendly. Anyway due to this I followed his career very closely. He was the first person to challenge Major League Baseball reserve clause that did not allow players to change teams. Once you were on a team you were considered property of that team. Flood considered this a form of slavery and sued. He eventually lost his suit, and was blackballed from the league but his actions led just a few years later to another challenge that won. His sacrifice, his raising the issue, his shining the mirror on America, led to change.
Lastly thinking about Megan Rapeeno. Something that is not much talked about. About a month after Colin Kapernick started his national anthem protest in 2016 she as well started taking a knee during the anthem.  She said the reason she took a knee was
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties, It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
For those who do not know Colin Kapernick he was a professional football player who protested during the national anthem to raise awareness specifically of police brutality against African Americans and racial oppression in general. In reading about Kapernick. One really interesting thing I learned was that originally his protest started with him just sitting on the bench. Upon watching this, Nate Boyer a former green beret who served for six years wrote Kapernick a respectful letter but sharing his discomfort with his sitting. Kapernick asked to meet with Boyer. When they met Kapernick expressed that he was committed to doing this until he started seeing some changes. It was Boyer the Green Beret who convinced Kapernick to kneel.

Boyer said
“I thought kneeling was more respectful, and I will say that being alongside his teammates was the biggest thing for me.  “in my opinion and in my experience, kneeling's never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act. I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your (spouse), and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave to pay respects.” 
Even though I always agreed with Kapernicks right to express himself, thinking about kneeling in this way really gave me a deeper perspective on it
People in America are falling. Falling victim to discrimination, falling victim to economic inequality, falling victim to drug addiction, falling victim to deportation falling victim to violence.  People, real every day people are hurting and dying in our streets and we are upset about a football player kneeling. Despite having had some success as a professional quarterback, Kapernick has not been signed by a team since 2016 when he started kneeling. He did receive a big contract with NIKE though which produced this ad 


Now I don’t necessarily like the concept that you have to be the best in the world, I think we should strive to reach our personal best. It asks not if your dreams are crazy ask if they are crazy enough. Or put another way, Do not be think small, do not impose self-inflicted limitations upon ourselves. And yes the examples I gave are people who are at the top of their fields. But they show us that to have courage in the face of injustice is an act of integrity that can make the world better, if not for ourselves today, then for future generations. That is something all of us can do.
I do have a crazy dream. I believe we can transform ourselves, transform the congregation and transform the world into a beloved community that lives out our Unitarian Universalist principles. And I agree with the line “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.” These examples I shared with you today showed individuals who risked everything they worked their whole lives towards, for what they believed. Risked everything for a cause higher then themselves. Risked everything with no knowledge of the outcome. Let us do likewise and move forward with faith, that our actions, taken with integrity, fueled by our values will lead to us to fulfill our vision and mission. May it be so.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Stories We Tell About Race - White Fragility


This summer our theme has been Storytelling.  We have heard about stories being told through TV shows, movies, music, and spirituality among others. I think it is important for us to not only tell our stories but also to understand how such stories, myths, and knowledge passed down from ancestors helped shape us as human beings. As well how our experiences in the world help shape us.
August of 2019 is the 400th anniversary of when the first Africans taken against their will from their homeland were delivered to Jamestown Virginia.  This past June was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in NYC, which is seen as the start of the LGBQT Advocacy Movement. As a country, a community and as a congregation we are called to understand how the story of our lives is impacted by race and the history of race and marginalized individuals in our country.  How stories get  told and especially by whom they are told, make a big difference in how we are shaped. And when we hear a story that does not resonate with our understanding of the world, we will have a choice. We can deny it. Or we can choose to be curious about it. We can choose to be open to learning a different perspective and integrate it with our own story and move forward the wiser.
Changing the narrative of history doesn’t happen all at once, it takes time and intentionality.  I remember in high school I had assigned readings among others of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and a Peoples History of the United States by Howard Zinn. These readings widened the lens of my understanding. Books and Teachers in my life have had a great impact upon me . Reading has allowed me not only to gain more information about the world, but it always sparks my imagination in unexpected ways. Reading allowed me to see and imagine a world beyond the environment I lived in. I imagine living in beloved community which I have seen defined as  “people of diverse racial, ethnic, educational, class, gender, sexual orientation identities who come together in an interdependent relationship of love, mutual respect, and care”  to create the beloved community we are going to have to hear some different stories and different narratives.
Sometimes changing the narrative doesn’t need to happen over a long time. I remember the first time I saw Michelle Alexander speak about The New Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration, it was like a veil being lifted up and I could suddenly see the world more clearly.  And once I saw it I could not look away. Like a car accident. You see the damage done, preventable damage. Marginalized people have been damaged by 400 years of slavery, jim crow, lynchings, mass incarceration, shootings of innocent people by police, alienation, discrimination, even deportation. And we are going to have to do more then stare in silence if anything is going to change. We must listen and we must learn, and we must act. And so as a start I invite you to read books by people with marginalized identities about their lives and their history and their hopes to allow you to widen your lens and widen your heart and widen your life.
For me it is personal, when I came to understand how systemic racism harmed my non white children and now my grandchildren. I had a visceral feeling of someone from the dominant culture and I tried to use all of my power and privilege to protect them in whatever way I could.  I think that is natural for any of us to want that for our children. I was trained from a very young age, that I should expect to be able to wield the levers of power to achieve what I wanted.  It doesn’t always work that way, but that is my expectation. People of color never can have that expectation. Talking to a African American colleague last week he tells me when white people call the police on a Black person or even if a black person calls the police for help, the black person’s life is always in danger.  When he said that it made me think of Trayvon martin who was shot not far from where I lived in Florida, for being black in a predominantly white neighborhood. People conditioned to fear him for the color of his skin.
Once my eyes were opened to how the system is so stacked against marginalized people I could not turn away and I ask you not to turn away. I ask you to be intentional about learning about it.  I have dedicated my life to use whatever power and privilege is at my disposal to dismantle systems of oppression. I see my role as a minister to always stand at the side of the most vulnerable in any given situation. I admit there are times I fail. Times when I opt for expediency. But in my best moments this is who I am called to be.  
This is my spiritual practice, and a spiritual necessity to be accountable to my children, accountable to friends and acquaintances who died of AIDS because our Government would not fund research because it predominantly a disease affecting Gay men,  and accountable to all my marginalized friends who have suffered at the hands of the dominant culture. Just as my family was before me, and I was once vulnerable in my own ways, I am here because people showed up and helped, and because the systems favors me. Not that I didn’t suffer and work hard, but I had less hurdles and more doors open for me because I am white. But the truth is no one can do it alone. And now it is my time, it is all our time to show up for others.  One small way we show up for each other is by sharing our collection each month. This month we are sharing our collection with the pastoral care team so that we may help fellow congregants with emergency needs. Please be as generous as you can and after you have had the opportunity to donate I invite you to come down to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
A few weeks ago the Board read a statement at service which was published in the newsletter.  Part of it said:
“we as a congregation will have….conversations on topics including white fragility, cultural competency, and communication among groups and individual members in our congregation.”
Now it is interesting. I actually had a couple of people write me asking why we didn’t include communications? Even though it was right there in the statement. I think a lot of people just stopped reading after the phrase White Fragility. Some of you talked to me sharing your uneasiness with the phrase,  others came to me with just a curiosity having never heard the phrase before and others thanked me for taking on such an important topic. Thank you.  All of  you who responded.  I appreciate that.
I think it is ok to be uneasy and curious. I encourage you to embrace that. It is only with uneasiness and curiosity that personal growth can happen. Its easy to be a holy person alone on top of a mountain.  (an conversely like Bruce Springsteen wrote, its hard to be a saint in the city) I first heard the phrase White Fragility in a speech by Robin Diangelo that later became a book entitled “White Fragility” We will be doing a book study this fall, and there are 10 copies outside in the hallway for anyone to take. If we run out, I will buy more.
Its not really about be fragile per se. as in brittle. White fragility is defined “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice”.  Now I think part of the uncomfortableness is that white people do not identity themselves racially. Last year we had a multi-week adult religious education program entitled Race the Power of an Illusion which explored how Race is a social construct. However when we think about race, we tend to discuss how we constructed non white races as reasons to justify our unequal treatment of people despite our declaration of independence indicating that all people are created equal and deserve  the right to pursue life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When we talk about the social construct of Race we tend not to explore what is the social construct of the White Race.
UU Theologian Thandeka in her book Learning to be white tells of asking white colleagues to play the race game – “to go around using he ascripitive term white whenever they mentioned the name of one of their euro American cohort. Such as my white husband phil, my white friend Jane, my lovely white child Jackie.” Her goal was to help them become conscious of the racialization process to which their own euro American community had subjected them. This failed miserably, as people could not bring themselves to do it. and so instead she asked them and then others what their earliest memories of incidents that helped shape their white racial identities. I invite you to think about that and what messages you received from others about your race and others. People of color have to face their racial identity every day, wondering how white people are going to react to them. For 400 years people of color have been subject to subjugation, violence, arrest, and fear at the hands of white people.
Whites are able to easily racialize other races. But often not ourselves. If you are white, when you are meeting someone and trying to describe yourself, do you tell people you are white? Now of course today we just look on their facebook profile to find out what they look like before we meet them, but generally whites tend not to think of themselves that way. (Describe myself – beard, short, older,) In the history of our country, White has just been considered the norm. Whether in tv or the movies, or in board rooms and politics, on police forces, it has and in most cases today still is, predominantly cisgender white men who control the levers of power in our society. From Robin Diangelo’s Book, a list composed in 2017
 “Ten richest Americans: 100 percent white
US Congress: 90 percent white"  (although this year only 78%, so change can happen)
"US governors: 96 percent white •
Top military advisers: 100 percent white •
President and vice president: white •
Current US presidential cabinet: 91 percent white •
People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white •
People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white •
People who decide which news is covered: 85 percent white •
People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white •
People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95 percent white • Teachers: 82 percent white •
Full-time college professors: 84 percent white • “
(Facebook post asking when was the first teacher you had that was of a different race then you – for me it was not until seminary)
So it is hard for me with this evidence of an overwhelmingly white power structure to understand white complaints of reverse racism whenever a person of color gets ahead or demands to be heard. And often they have to demand to be heard in order to be heard.  We can not just say we are colorblind and we will treat people equally when white people hold all the levers of power and fight every way they can to maintain that power. We have to be actively anti-racist and anti-oppression. And we have seen over the last six years as exemplified this last weekend. Domestic Terror attacks are perpetrated primarily by white males. The recent shooter  wrote about a fear of being replaced. It was two years ago this weekend, in Charlottsville VA white supremacists publicly walked the streets and shouted Jews will not replace us. Despite still having overwhelming power white people fear allowing people of color to have any power. Perhaps it is a deep seated guilt knowing how whites have treated people of color in this country
For much of our country’s history being white meant you could be a citizen and own land. The Naturalization act of 1790 limited naturalization to immigrants who were "free White persons of good character"  So then the question became who was a free white person. In 1922 Armenians brought a case to the supreme court and were granted the right to classified as white based on "scientific" evidence. Takao d Ozawa a Japanese American lost a supreme court case because he was "scientifically" a mongoloid.  Ozawa had become completely culturally white. In his dress, in his language. He moved to a white neighborhood and made his children only play with white children. He had erased his entire culture in order to try to become white. Still it was not enough. (comment about erasure of our cultures). A year later an Asian Indian man brought a suit to the Supreme court using the same scientific evidence that showed he was descended from Aryans and classified as Caucasian, and the supreme court denied this saying
“What we now hold is that the words "free white persons" are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word "Caucasian" only as that word is popularly understood. Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white.”  
So by law white became defined in a cultural way, not only via skin pigmentation. So basically it was whoever the powerful decided they wanted to have power they dolled out power to.
And this is part of the river that we swim in.
Who can have power and who cannot.
Who can get what jobs and who cannot.
Who can get good housing and who cannot.
Who can get quality healthcare and who cannot. Who gets to speak and who cannot.
And more often then not that breaks down by racial lines.
It is the people who hold the levers of power that determine that and when marginalized people speak up for themselves, the people who have power tend to get defensive and angry and push back, so they can maintain their equilibrium that reminds them they have certain social power. 
In every interaction we should look at who has more social power. So invite you when you receive some feedback, to graciously receive it, to reflect upon it, and consider why you are receiving such feedback. In fact I would say such feedback from a marginalized person is a sign that they trust you. Similar to my colleague who fears calling the police, marginalized people know they are at risk of retribution when they speak up to people in power. 
But here, in this our sacred place, our sacred community let us live up to that trust by building a capacity for discomfort. Let us live into our mission where everyone can have a sense of belonging. You know I have had a number of people and especially recently who have said to me Jay, why do you have to preach on social justice. For me the answer is easy. It is the values that the principles of Unitarian Universalism instill within me. The inherent worth and dignity of each person. Justice equity and compassion in human relations. If we believe in this, if this is our touchstone, then we cannot turn away. Secondly I preach on social justice because you called me to do so. The Congregational mission calls us to be welcoming and diverse. That cant just be welcoming and diverse only with people we like or who are like us, who fit into our cultural norm. And the congregational vision includes specifically that we Support social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the community. This is who you say you want to be. You will have to decide if this is who you truly want to be.
And to make it happen will require changes that can be uncomfortable. And change can feel like loss. And change involves grieving for who we once were as a congregation. Or grieving for having the ability to do and say whatever we want without feedback. Grieving giving up power to others. Like with any grief, we can choose to face it or let it consume us. We may be in a valley but there is a mountaintop up ahead if we can find the will and the love and the openness we can get there. I believe it. But we can only get there together.  No one makes it alone
This has been a particularly challenging topic and I imagine it will continue to be.  But nothing can be accomplished if it is not faced. And I reminded myself about why I went into ministry. Not to play it safe. But to transform lives and transform the world. I don’t always know the way forward. But to do nothing is to be paralyzed. To feel guilty or fearful is unhelpful. Diangelo writes “The antidote for guilt and fear is action.” So I walk forward boldly with integrity and authenticity with faith as to where the journey leads. I am asking all of you to walk together on this journey. Not a sprint. But a marathon. One step at a time. With love in our hearts and compassion for each other, a  curiosity to listen and learn and a willingness to do the hard work with humbleness to reach our mission of truly being welcoming and diverse  May it be so.