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.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Sacred Text of Harry Potter


Last summer during our vacation with our 10 year old granddaughter Scarlett, she was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I thought I would join in reading it as a way to have something in common to stay connected with her.  
Over the course of the last year I read the 7 book Harry Potter Series written by JK Rowling. It was an easy read. The first few books seemed unremarkable to me, but as the series went on, one could look back and see the foreshadowing and character development. Let me say, up front there will be spoilers in today’s sermon.
And I am just going to say that there is so much in these books that I am not going to get to all of it. So first, I am curious, if you would raise your hand, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series or seen the movies?  Second question. How many of you have read the four gospels in the Christian Scriptures.  So the pictures you will see are from the movies, but I thought casting did a really good job. So for those who have not read the book or seen the movies, here is the overarching story.

The story is based mostly in England, where there are wizards/withches/elves/goblins, dragons, and giants and then there are humans called muggles who are kept mostly unaware of all of this. (PPT)  A powerful wizard Voldemort (previously known as Tom Riddle) in his lust for power kills Harry Potters Parents, when Harry was an infant but the spell that kills his mother rebounds and critically injures Voldemort himself who goes into hiding and thus harry becomes known as the boy that lived.  (PPT) The books start up when Harry is 11 years old and each of the 7 books spans a year in the life of Harry Potter from age 11 to 17.
Although there are many overarching themes, the focal point of the story is the return of Voldermort and his conflict with Harry. The story starts with Harry living with his Aunt unaware of his past, or about wizards but is starting to recognize that he has some unique abilities.  It is interesting to think about fear and awkwardness of Harry’ realization of his Wizarding abilities and the similarities of someone going through puberty and how having sexuality education can be helpful to navigate such changes and How life long education in general can help us navigate the ever changing world we live in. (and just a note if you are interested in teaching our Sexualty Program we will be having a training next year.  (PPT)
A Wizard comes to Harry’s aunts house, and reveals to Harry that he is a wizard and brings Harry to Hogwarts Academy for a wizarding education.  (PPT) At Hogwarts he is mentored by the headmaster Dumbledore and  befriends Ron Weasly and Hermoine Grainger. Now it is an interesting corollary, in that Voldemort himself was an orphan, of a royal wizarding lineage who grows up in an orphanage. As he discovered his own powers when he was young he experimented with them by causing pain to others. Voldemort was as well brought to Hogwarts for an education as a youth.
I have to admit, at times throughout the books, I kept thinking Harry is a bit of a jerk. As I looked back though, it makes more sense to look at this series from the lens of childhood trauma and how it affects people differently. For years Harry was forced to live in a closet under the steps in his Aunt’s house and was treated abusively by his aunt, uncle and cousin.  So it makes sense that Harry throughout the books struggles to build meaningful relationships.  He is very distrustful of adults, and often lies to them and in general is a very secretive person.  He is a very bitter young man, often angry at Dumbledore for deceiving him, or withholding information but it is easier to understand when seen through the lens of childhood trauma. 
           Another character Neville Longbotton who is connected to harry via a prophesy, is also a survivor of trauma, with his parents having been mentally incapacitated by Voldomorts followers years earlier. He was raised by his grandmother. He as well was secretive, but found his niche, and was compassionate to others.
Three orphans, three who survived trauma, one Harry, felt a strong call to duty, a second Neville, felt a strong call to protect the weak, and the third Voldemort, sought absolute power. Did living in the orphanage, vs with abusive family vs with a more loving family help shape how they reacted to their trauma?  Or was Voldemort just a bad seed. And of course let us remember that this is a fantasy book and not a psychology book. 
The author through Dumbledore does give us their perspective on it. When each student arrives at Hogwarts they are sorted into one of four house based on a person’s qualities,  or perceived qualities that could be developed. Sort of like a magical Myers Briggs test. The four houses are

Gryffindor which values courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry
Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, justice, and loyalty
Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit
Slytherin values ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness;

For the record, on Pottermore.com you can take a test that sorts you and I was put in Slytherin. The houses compete with each other for points in academics and sports and behavior and the house with the most points wins the house cup a source of great honor. In book one, When Harry was being sorted, all he thought was “not Slytherin.” In  book two, when Harry finds out he has similarities to Voldemort who is an heir to Slytherin, he wonders why he was not sorted into Slytherin, and he understands

“It only put me in Gryffindor, because I asked not to go in Slytherin,” and Dumbledore replies, “Exactly,  Which makes you very different from Voldermort.  It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

This message so resonated with me, this is the saying of my life.
I can look back on my life and see the variety of choices I have made and see how they led me through my life. The truth is there is so much uncertainty, and interdependence, that we can never truly know how things would have turned out  otherwise, or will turn out in the future, but that doesn’t give us the right to abdicate making a choice. We make the best choice we can with the information we have. And I can tell you for myself, every time I make the hard choice instead of the expedient choice  in the long run it usually ends better.  Sometimes we have two bad choices, and its hard.  But If you don’t make a choice and allow others to make it then that is also making a choice. And often there is a cost and consequence to every choice, something gained, something lost.

But what this story tells me is that by our choices we can transcend our trauma. We can choose, like harry, though feeling abandoned, and lied to, with heavy burdens placed upon him, to face down his fears and engage with the challenges that faced him. Though often uncertain, and feeling unprepared,  he kept pushing forward, doing his duty for the greater good. Helping those around him, constantly working to improve himself and his fellow students.  Even with Draco Malfoy who Harry had many fights with, in the end he helped save his life.  Dumbledore said Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.  Let us move forward as well with such strength and purpose as a community. It is with these thoughts in mind that we ask for your help in fulfilling our mission and vision as we now take our offering.

Part II
So I led a service a few years ago about what makes something a Sacred text.  The shortened version is that we as a community determine what is sacred for us, and individually a text is sacred if it helps you transcend the everyday, offers you insight, guidance and most importantly leads you to act in the world for something larger than just yourself. Whatever that is for you, that is your sacred text. There is much I found in Harry Potter that fills those description of sacred text for me and helps me with those uncertain choices we have to make.

Although I have to say it is ironic that when I talk to people about the Books, people who disdain literalism in all other religious sacred texts, suddenly become very fundamentalist about what the book says and means.  One of the great lessons from the books for me is that no one is completely good or bad. Every ‘good” character has a fault.
As I mentioned earlier the hero protagonist of the book Harry Potter had many negative qualities. The loyal protective gameskeeper Hagrid’s inability to keep a secret and poor teaching skills leads to many dangers. Jealousy led Snape to do horrific deeds, and it took the rest of his life to earn his repentance. And of course the wise Dumbledore whose penchant for power put his own family at risk, and even later in life even with a lifetime of wisdom, a momentary relapse with a  bad decision left him with life altering consequences. Constant vigilance is required. Even most of the bad characters have some redeemable qualities. In the end, Draco Malfoy, despite being groomed to, could not bring himself to kill Dumbledore. Even the loathsome Peter Pettigrew in a moment of Mercy or honor choses not to kill Harry when he is ordered to and is killed for it.  Narcissa Malfoy’s love for her son,  allowed her to overcome her fear of and lie to Voldemort to protect Harry.

And that is another core message of the series,
that love is stronger then fear.
That love can heal us.
From the very beginning, it was Harry’s mothers love that protected him. 
Dumbledore says
“to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” 
Harry’s love for Hogwarts, his deep caring for his friends, his loyalty and duty to Dumbledore is contrasted throughout the book with Voldemorts coldness, selfishness, and cruelty.
It is the love in the aftermath of suffering and the willingness to grow and learn that separates Harry from Voldemort.  Dumbledore tells harry,
 That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of  house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence. Voldemort knows and understands nothing…. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.” 
 And so I ask you what do you value.
Do you value the ethic of love as a way to live your life.
That is what Unitarian Universalism speaks to,
Our sources speak to the transforming power of love. 
If you want that for yourself, for our congregation, for our community, then I ask you to take the trouble to comprehend what that means.
It doesn’t mean lets all sing kumbaya together, (although every now and then that would be ok)
It means that despite our differences we have to stick together. As Dumbledore says
“we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.
Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
Let us remember who we are fighting and what we are fighting for.
We are fighting to create a compassionate and just world.
We are fighting for religious freedom.
We are fighting for a world where we can eradicate discrimination and end the oppression of marginalized people.
And it is going to take all of us to do that. 

Ultimately this story is a story of resistance. The youth in the story form Dumbledore’s Army (or DA for short) to fight against the dark forces of Voldemort. After intensive training, when some real trouble starts Harry doesn’t want to involve others in order to protect them from danger, but instead Neville Longbottom crys out,    “we were all in the DA together….It was all supposed to be about fighting Voldermort wasn’t it. And this is the first chance we’ve had to do something real, or was that all just a game or something”  When the going gets tough, do we stick it out, do we keep our eye on the prize of creating a community of love and justice, or is that just a game to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Now more then ever is the time to come together, not try to do it on our own. Dumbledore tells Harry,

“If I thought I could help you, “by putting you into an enchanted sleep and allowing you to postpone the moment when you would have to think about what has happened tonight, I would do it. But I know better. Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.”


Just like the four houses of Hogwarts had different values, abilities, and potential, they came together to fight for the greater good.
Despite our differences we must do the work together
to see the love in one another,
to forgive each other and to begin again and again and again,
because that is our covenant with each other.
Specifically our covenant of right relations ends with

Recognizing and acknowledging the existence of human error as a part of the cycle of human growth, we will respect the dignity and worth of each other and will be accountable for our own words and actions. Even if the process is lengthy and difficult, we will work honestly through our disagreements with others”

Even at the very end in the final battle, when Harry  understands the truth of what is about to happen and why he will kill Voldermort, the person who killed his parents, the person who has hunted him and tried to kill him, still Harry offers him redemption. He says:
"before you try to kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done. Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle “What is this?” Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this... “It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left. . . .Be (human) . . . try . . . Try for some remorse. . . .”"

Now I know we each think we are Harry in this drama and someone else is Voldemort,
but the truth is just like the story there is a little of both in all of us.
This is the battle we fight constantly.
Individually and communally.
Let us all work to be a little bit more like Harry.  
Courageous, engaging, working for the greater good.
To fulfill our vision and mission
May it be so.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The Sermon on the Gnats

Last Sunday I was with the UU Congregation in Cedar Rapids leading the service for my colleague who is on parental leave.
I decided to take a few days of study leave prior to that and stay at a Franciscan retreat center in Cedar Rapids. I spent my time meditating, reading, writing, thinking, and walking. A way to step away from the day to day 24/7 life I live to recharge my spiritual batteries.  I thank you for that time away. I had an experience while there that I found to be interesting and metaphorical to our spiritual journey and for our journey for justice.
This particular location has a cosmic walk through the woods that traces the path of evolution starting with the big bang some 14 billion years ago and it ends with “Conscious Changing” at the entrance to a labyrinth. As I went out for a walk the first night, I started walking the labyrinth and was attacked by gnats.  I just want to say that I hate gnats. Its nothing personal .I should have realized this and protected myself with spray as I had been attacked by gnats here in the quad cities just the week before.
For some reason did I think cedar rapids didn’t have gnats???
Maybe these were the quad cities gnats that followed me there,
or through their gnat communication system told them I was coming.
I don’t know why it is but mosquitoes and gnats they just love me.
When I go anywhere with my wife Jan, she never ever gets bit, but the bugs in the same space and same time give me multiple bites.  
I always tell her it is because I am so sweet.
She thinks there may be other causes.

I think our differences in bug bite attractions is and of itself a metaphor.
It is the truth about our lives,
that different people have different reactions to different things.
Whether due to genetics, or life circumstances or life experiences,
and we should not expect people to conform to our way of reacting, particularly reactions that trigger trauma.
We should accept people for who they are and where they are in their life. 
In my life. I had some serious traumas in my childhood.
And over a long period of time, once I was willing to face it, with help from family and my community, I  wont say I overcame them, but I transcended them which certainly shaped and informed my life and life choices. 
So when someone tells you they are in pain over something, please don’t say,
well I am not in pain over it, so you shouldn’t be.

What I have found in life is that many many people suffer trauma, and in different ways,
in ways that are unimaginable to me.
And different people have different coping abilities, and different support systems.
And so it is important to be sensitive when someone says they are experiencing spiritual pain. 
Still I know there are times when I hear complaints on facebook, that voice in my head whispers why don’t they just get over it and move on.
And when those moments happen,
I remember that those words would have been meaningless if directed at me in the face of my suffering.
And so from those experiences,
I learned to be compassionate towards others.
There are things you just don’t get over.
But we can transcend them whether individually or as a congregation, by being a part of and working to create a welcoming community, working towards creating a world that reduces suffering for all people.

To get back to the gnats and the labyrinth
Not to compare my being attacked by gnats to actual suffering, but after getting just a short way through the labyrinth  that first night the gnats started swarming and biting me up.
I walked quickly back exactly the way I came in.
So the first lesson, is try to be prepared for the journey.
Investigate what is needed.
Understand the environment you are in.
Now in this case I knew what was needed,
but I was careless, and unthinking.
Or if I was being generous with myself I could say I was eternally optimistic that this time they wouldn’t bite me.
So it is a reminder to us to be intentional and careful in our journey as a way to avoid harm to ourselves and others. 
I do not believe we need to suffer needlessly for our spiritual work.
We will sacrifice for it, whether it be in time, or money, or energy, and perhaps even freedom
so let us make sure that if we do sacrifice something of ourselves that it is for something that is meaningful and important.

That is one reason we come together.
To make sense of the world, to build resilience for it, to be comforted from its challenges,
and to help us discern what is meaningful and important in our lives.
So the next morning, I went back out for another walk. 
I had buttoned up all my collars on my shirt, pulled my socks high, sprayed myself with REPEL 100 with 98.15% deet whatever that means,
and out I went.
There was a nice cool breeze so I thought, that might keep the gnats away.
And on my journey through the Cosmic Walk I was undisturbed by gnats.
Then when I got to the labrynth, I felt the gnats around me.
Just circling, maybe now and then one would dive bomb me, but do no damage,
My protection I put on was working.
Or I thought it was.
Now think about that in our lives.
We just never know when something is going to derail us.
Things can be going well for a while and we think we have the world figured out.
But the things that can hold us back are always lurking, the naysayers, whether internal or external, the natural disasters,
the unexpected car repair or medical bill,
the chocolate chip cookie and cheeseburger that call to you when you are trying to eat healthy.
(at least to me)  
You prepare yourself, but life happens and you know they are there like the gnats.

I starting walking in the labyrinth and about half way through the gnats started getting me.
They found the one little space that didn’t get spray on my skin and they bit me.
They must some communication system amongst them, like gnat facebook…because as soon as one hit paydirt, a swarm of them started poking me testing what spots were not covered.

And that is true in life.
Whether it is starting a new spiritual practice or working against systems of power for justice life can get difficult,
because anything new,
especially entrenched habits are difficult to change. Think about something simple like going to the gym, the first few times, your body aches from doing something it hasn’t done in years.
Or taking up a spiritual practice like meditation,
or coming to the Congregation on every Sunday morning
or speaking publicly at the city council meeting.
you are not going to be an expert at once,
it can seem awkward, maybe even fearful,
but over time with practice and commitment new habits can be formed.
When you try something new,
or you step out of your comfort zone,
or when you speak up against injustice,
there is going to be push back
some internally within yourself,
oh was I good enough,
will anyone listen to me, etc
and at times there will be critique from others.
First it will be like gnats testing to find your weakness, and when they do they swarm.
Another important lesson about gnats is to not open your mouth when you are walking, because they will fly in and that is a disgusting feeling.
And I think that is a good metaphor as well in a couple of ways.
We do not have to allow others opinions of us derail us and harm us.
But also, when things get difficult and people have critique we should keep our mouth shut and listen. Listen to what our body is feeling,
listen to how and why our emotions are acting up. Listen to others to hear and understand what their concerns are.
But you cant let that stop you from continuing your journey.
All of us are not beyond learning.
Let us incorporate our critique internal and external and use it to improve.

This second day I made it to the center of the labrynth.
At the center I paused, hoping for a moment of respite to sit and ponder before returning to the world.
But it was not to be as I learned my repel 100 with 98.15% deet only had 60 minute duration of protection and I, I was at minute 61.
Now this is another good metaphor.
We must always be renewing ourselves, spiritually, physically, and mentally.
Mind body soul connection.
Just like filling up a tank of gas, eventually it runs out.
We can not just do anything, whether it be a spiritual practice or fighting for justice just once in a while and expect it to take hold forever
and change us and change the world.
No, we need to have a disciplined and varied practice.
We need to constantly renew ourselves.
And build the skills that will lead to success

The NBA draft was last week and the number one pick in the draft zion Williamson said from the age of 9 years old he would wake up every morning at 5am and practice shooting basketball. 
Now we each have different skills and capabilities and limitations, no matter how much I practiced I would never be a professional basketball player, but if you want to be good at anything, you have to be consistent and always learn new things as the circumstances of our lives and the world change,
and as we develop over time,
we must always be willing to adapt.

That is what unitarian Universalism does.
We don’t just say this is the way its always been. We see a changing world, we learn new knowledge, we welcome in new people who have different ideas. And we listen and we adapt.
The truth is if you do not keep renewing yourself at the well of your soul, you will burn out.
It is why the labyrinth has the path in and out.
If I stayed in the center,
I would  been eaten up by the gnats….
And metaphorically it is the same.
If you stay in the center,
if you only work on renewing yourself and never go out and share that with the world,
you get stuck focused on the inside in a form of narcissism,
which is oblivious to the struggles of others and is the opposite of being compassionate.
I also say varied, because I think human nature desires variety.
If we just do the same thing time after time after time after time, after time, after time, after time
you see it gets repetitious and boring.
Even in our meditation practice, we have breathing meditation, walking meditation, loving kindness meditation, a reading and time for sharing. With social justice it is the same, There is
Social Service
Education
Public Witness
Community Organizing
Systemic Change
It is not just one thing, but all of these together that are needed to create justice
A way of keeping us engaged with multiple ways and working towards our goal.  

And that is an important thing to remember as well and to focus on.
Why are we doing what we are doing.
Our spiritual, religious journey, should help us improve our lives, our relationships, and by so doing increase our capacity for compassion for ourselves and others and a hunger for justice in the world with a generosity of spirit and resources.  
I left that journey in the center of the labyrinth.
Now normally I am disciplined
or I might say stubborn about walking back out the labyrinth the same path that I walked in with.
As I was in the center if I followed my disciplined pattern, I would have been bitten up all over whatever exposed skin I had.
Sometimes you have to change tactics.
You have to experiment with new things.
Maybe try a guided meditation.
Maybe join a new team at the congregation and meet different people and learn something you have never done before.
Maybe find new organizing tactics or be willing to let others lead in certain areas.
The goal can still be the same,
But its important to figure out what works and what doesn’t and be willing use that knowledge to inform our future actions.

Or perhaps your goals will change.
That is why the board goes on a retreat every year to create an annual vision of ministry.
To envision what the environment of and needs of the congregation and community will be in the future,
to determine if our mission and or vision needs updating to reflect and meet those needs
and what we can start doing this upcoming year to live into our vision and mission.
And the same is true for each of you.
What is the vision of your religious and spiritual life. What needs updating and what can you do now to bring about the life and world that you dream about. And change is hard and change can cause conflict, both internally and externally.

But I want to share with you the words of “DRUMM” which stands for Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universlist Multicultural Ministries”
after a particularly difficult situation at General Assembly this year they wrote
“We are called to go deeper and to stay in community.
The great prophetic vision of our shared faith is one in which we know Heaven on earth and the reality of interconnectedness is fully realized.
We do this work because our fate, and faith,
are connected”

So although our journey is never a straight line,
or even sometimes an easy journey.
The path may be broken and have detours and you have walk gently,
and perhaps because of that our journey takes a bit longer then expected
but I invite you into connectedness,
I invite you into commitment to this Congregation,
I invite you into relationship with others,
with an ethic of love and a willingness for all of us to change and adapt to become the congregation we can be,
A congregation Committed to justice,
A Congregation open to diversity,
A congregation willing to go deep to create the beloved community.
May it be so

Thursday, April 18, 2019

No Other Gods - The Ten Commandments


I was inspired to write this service after reading the book “No Other Gods” by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons.  I highly recommend you read the book. This upcoming week is the start of the Jewish Holiday Passover. It is the story of the Jewish people escape from slavery and their journey through the wilderness to find their way home. And whether or not you believe that God personally gave these commandments  such as written in the Bible or just a way leaders of the community set the laws for their community, there is no doubt the 10 commandments have impacted our culture.

I look at the 10 commandments as a sort of mission statement for their community. Just as we have a mission and vision statement and principles that we aspire to and look to when we make our decisions. We all discern as a community what rules we will follow, what vision we point ourselves towards, what is acceptable to us.
But I think it is important as with everything to look back and see what meaning this ancient wisdom may still hold for us today. We see the commandments as static and unmoving but even in the Jewish Tradition that is not so. Interestingly in the Book of Deuteronomy which was written at least a couple of hundreds years after the book of exodus there was a second list of Ten commandments with some subtle changes that indicate the community felt it needed to adjust due to its changing circumstances.

And as our lives are very different then the lives 2,500 years ago, so to should we make new meaning and find new understanding in these commandments.
I think in general we tend to even shy away from the word commandment.
But to me this speaks to what calls to us.
What is the most important values that we claim to shape our lives around.   
The very first commandment, for me is the touchstone.
“I the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods beside me.”
This is a reminder that this story is the story of liberation.
Even after you have made it though the difficult desert of your life.
After enduring tragedy, and you are settled, living in a nice house, with two cars, cable tv, etc. we should never forget that we are a people of liberation.
That as long as there are others in bondage our work for the liberation of all people is not done. As Ralph Waldo Emerson Said.
“Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming .”
So what do we worship?
Do we worship ourselves?
Do we worship consumerism?
What the commandments ask us to do is to worship liberation for all people, every day, always.

Commandment two  tells us
“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below in  the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon fourth generations of those who reject Me. But showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments”
Of course in olden days they were talking about competing religions that made statues of their Gods. But the Jewish God was a God with no name, and no face. What most people do not focus on though is the word yourself.
Do not make for yourself a sculptured image of something else. This is telling us we should be our unique selves. We are often so busy keeping up with an image that our society expects of us, because we have heard it from the day we were born. But we need to be and to act based on who authentic self. When I grew up with this text I thought the part about guilt of the parent to the third or fourth generation was a little harsh, to punish a child for their parent’s sins.
But it is not punishment. We know that trauma is multi generational.
That what we do impacts our family and our community and in doing so, it will take generations to rectify the challenges we create when our are actions are in contradiction with our values.

I think this ties into the third commandment
“You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God for the lord will not clear one who swears falsely by God’s name”
Yes, if your vision of God is an angry old white man in the sky, this really does not make sense. But if we look at God as the theologian Paul Tillich does as the ground of all being, or ultimate reality, what it is saying is that when we deny reality, we take Gods name in vain. When we deny that someone else’s suffering is important we are denying reality.
When we deny that the climate is changing we are denying reality.
Every day, All day long, we hear people lying and manipulating the truth for their own personal self interest, and this is what is meant by swearing falsely. What we say matters Words matter. Truth matters.   In Genesis, the first six days of creation God spoke creation into existence. If you remember your Genesis it is God said let there be light, God said Let the water below the sky be gathered…etc. etc. and on the sixth day God Said let us create humans in our image.Very much like the Buddhist practice of right speech, being as impeccable as we can be with our words, speaking truth, is an important value for a community to healthy. This commandment tells us there is a holiness to truth, there is a holiness to reality

The fourth commandment is “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the lord your God.  you shall not do any work you,  your children, or your slaves, or your cattle or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day therefore the lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”
To remember to take time for yourself,
To remember who you are,
to remember that you are a free person.
To stop from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives to take time to think about our values and how we want to live our lives
to think about what it is that we worship.
I admit, I thought about editing out slavery when reading the commandment but that would be manipulating the truth.
Let it be a reminder to us today how even oppressed people who become free can often become oppressors themselves. 
Let us take time in our lives to be introspective about how we can build a more just community for all people.

The fifth commandment “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you”
This is of course a heteronormative view of families and I recognize that is not who we are today. I also want to point out it does not say we must obey our parents. Just honor them.
I would argue its meaning is deeper then even to our biological or adoptive family.
The meaning to me is to honor our existence here.
To honor what got us to where we are today. Even congregationally to honor our ancestors who started this congregation, who built this building people probably very different from us, with different values then we have,  but without them we would not be here in this building together.
And to go a step further to honor existence itself by taking care of the planet that nourishes and feeds us.

And now we ask  you to nourish and feed the congregation as we take the offering so that Unitarian Universalism shall be here for our descendants who we  cannot even imagine today but know, will be very different from us.  Once you have had the chance to donate we invite you to come to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
The second five commandments are much more about how we live in the world.
Commandment #6 You shall not murder seems pretty straightforward right. Or does it. You may have heard of the ethical experiment of the trolley conductor. There are 5 people in the way of the trolley, and if the conductor pulls a switch it will change tracks and only kill one person. The experiment goes on to ask what if the one person was a relative or known to you or was a doctor who could save lives.
What would you do. Ethicist Peter Singer asked the question what if your new fancy shiny luxury car was on the other track.
Would we allow the trolley to kill the five people to save our car? 
We instinctively say no.
But we do that every day, as people in extreme poverty in the world even here in the Quad Cities are dying every day as we live with what they would consider luxurious lifestyles.  That is a conscious 
choice we make based on how we spend our money and taxes. This commandment asks us not only to actively not kill someone, but to not stand by when we know others are in danger.

Commandment #7 - You shall not commit Adultery.  This speaks to commitment and loyalty. It speaks against the commercialization of our relationships and recognizing and living with imperfection. This commandment reminds me of the 14th mindfulness training From Buddhist Monk Thich Naht Hanh which goes even further including.   
“Aware that sexual desire is not love and that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a deep long-term commitment made known to our family and friends.”
Commandment #8 You should not steal. Stealing can take many forms. Of course in its most basic form we should not take something we do not own. But let us go a little further.  Downloading music for free or cheating on ones taxes seems victimless because we are disconnected from the individual affected. We can think how can my little act really impact anyone. If something is wrong, it is wrong. But let us go a bit further with this. If someone donates to politicians and gets laws changed to be able to shield their tax, is that just as much an afront as outright stealing.  When people stack the deck in their favor and reduce funds to help those in need, then we have broken this commandment.
What this commandment tells us that we must all do our fair share to help each other.

Commandment #9 – “You shall not you bear false witness against your neighbor.” 
And who is your neighbor. Everybody is.
This is again about manipulating the truth which I spoke of before. Bearing false witness is also about not giving full information.
When the tobacco industry hid information about the danger of smoking they broke this commandment.
When the fossil fuel company hides information about the danger of climate change they are breaking this commandment.
On an individual level it is again about the authenticity of relationships.
So when someone asks you how do I look in this dress or does this tie match my shirt, you are obligated to tell them the truth. (although if you really love them, they will always look good in that 
dress).
And yet I would argue there is a time and place to bear false witness.
If it would save lives.
I think of Christians who hid Jews during world war II in Europe.
They bore false witness to save lives. That cannot be wrong.
So all commandments have to be judged in their context. Yet on the whole we should face the truth, hard truths and deal with them.

And Lastly #10 “Do not covet your neighbor’s. house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or your neighbors slaves, their ox, their donkey or anything that is your neighbors.
So it is not enough to not commit adultery or steal or lie, you should not even think about doing it. For before action comes the thought. As the Emerson quote I read earlier said, “what we imagine will determine our lives.”   Know and understand your thoughts and you can see what is real and you can choose your actions according to what is real.
Really what this is asking us is how much is enough.
To end our desire to keep up with the Jones. (We have no members with the last name Jones in the Congregation) To reduce our desires in general. Again we see the similarity with Buddhist Mindfulness trainings that state that we need to consume mindfully and that we use excess consumption as a way to cover up the suffering in our lives.   

As I have gone through these, I am trying to make something old into something new.
To make it meaningful to us in our day and in our context.
To help us see the winding road in front of us more clearly.
To see these laws as much of Jewish history did  a call to a countercultural way of being in relationship with our consumer driven results oriented world we live in today.
I invite you to see how these 10 rules could impact our lives. I say this not ironically at all, these laws are not written in stone.
To make these laws real in the world requires a certain discipline and commitment.
There is a price to paid for worshiping liberation, truth and justice.
What price would you pay to be free?
What moves your life, your spirit to change yourself and change the world for the better.
May we each find it.