How to Take Down White Supremacy

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How to Take Down White Supremacy

Rev. Douglas Taylor

1-17-21

I want to tell you how to take down White Supremacy. But first, let me share with you a story about something I learned from a bunch of youth leaders. 

This first story is from about a dozen or so years ago. I was attending our General Assembly – the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists for business, programs, and collegial interaction. That year in particular, I was attending as clergy and also as a youth sponsor for my eldest child. This dual role led to some scheduling overlap and I had to make choices about where I spent my time.

One afternoon, I opted to skip the big keynote lecture at the ministers’ gathering to instead attend the orientation meeting for the Youth Delegates and their sponsors. I have been deeply grateful for that choice as the years have gone on, because at that orientation session I heard the most remarkable rationale for abiding by the agreed-upon rules of participation that I’ve ever been offered.

The ground rule that had prompted this story was the fairly standard ‘no smoking or alcohol’ rule for the youth. Instead of saying ‘hey, cigarettes and alcohol are illegal for under-age youth such as yourselves,’ or the problematic ‘hey, you can make your own choices but remember such choices can damage the whole community;’ the organizers of the event took a different route.

They began be naming the rule. They reminded folks that AA and NA recovery support meetings were available at General Assembly. But the stroke of genius was when one of the presenters said, ‘Remember, addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy; stay sober and stick it to the man.’

Sobriety as a form of resistance; such a compelling notion. Be a rebel by following these rules. It really makes one think about what being a rebel has to look like and what we are resisting, and how the conversation is about both what we are against and what we are for. Stay sober and stick it to the man.

This has been an intriguing idea for me over the ensuing years. Is addiction a tool of the Patriarchy? How would that work? To say an oppressive culture – for that is what is meant by the term ‘Patriarchy’ in this context – uses a tool such as addiction, we are not saying the Patriarchy invented addiction. Addiction is its own thing, and as such can happen without the Patriarchy’s meddling. The suggestion is that the Patriarchy has found it useful to have people addicted to drugs and alcohol so as to better maintain a patriarchal control over culture. Addiction is one of the tools the Patriarchy uses to maintain oppressive gender norms in society.

To really unpack that idea would be more of a dissertation than a sermon, but let me use the premise as a springboard into my point for us this morning. In the mid-1980’s, feminist, poet, and activist, Audre Lorde delivered a speech in which she proclaimed, “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Staying with the example of addiction for a moment, we cannot regain control of our addictive lives by becoming addicted to something else. Addiction itself will continue to twist and pervert our actions. The way to regain self-control is to recover from addiction as a tool, not to merely refocus a particular addiction onto a different topic.

And here is the pivotal thought of our morning: other oppressive systems, such as White Supremacy and racism, also use such tools to maintain control over people such as you and me. It becomes useful to ask, ‘what are the tools being used against us?’

This is a very different question from the more common one – ‘who is using these tools against us?’ It is difficult to really grapple with the discovery that, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Yes, there are actual White Supremacists out there causing trouble. This has been on the news lately. There are racists and haters of many stripes, out there insidiously committing racist and hateful deeds. And yes, it does get ugly when some of these individuals get into positions of power and authority in our country. But we also participate in this culture.

When we can ask ‘what are the tools being used against us?’ instead of ‘who is using these tools?’ then we begin to uncover the systems that are set up to support the racists and haters around us. We begin to uncover the ways in which the systems of oppression turn us into participants in our own oppression.

In our reading this morning, from Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist, we heard the distinction between a racist and an antiracist. At one point, Kendi offers this: “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.” (p9) It can be a logical assumption to say that the problem of racism is about the behaviors and attitudes of racist people.

However, we are all part of the systems and structures of our culture. I agree with what Kendi is saying, that the problem of racism is not about a group of racists who are out there somewhere doing racists things. I agree that the problem is the system around us in which we are participants.

Kendi actually goes several steps further and later in the book he talks about “racist policies leading to racist ideas, not the other way around, as we have commonly thought.” (p230) But for the sake of our point this morning, let us consider racist policies as one of the tools of White Supremacy.

Through the years, legal restrictions on housing and property and employment and education have had racial ramifications. Slavery was legal, Jim Crow segregation laws were widely upheld, mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses created a surge in prison populations with racial implications. Kendi’s point is that these racist policies have been the tools that built up our country’s ideas of racial inequality. These and other laws have shaped our country over the generations, usually not in ways that help people of color. Occasionally there is a helpful law that comes along – voting rights, affirmative action, that sort of thing. 

Over 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)

Here is the difficulty – Legislative change is one of the keys to dealing with racism in our country. The vast majority of citizens in this country, however, are not in a position to shape our laws. We can lobby, we can protest, we can advocate and influence, we can vote, but most of what happens with the shaping of our country’s laws and policies is not in our direct control.

So, what are we to do? How are we to participate in dismantling White Supremacy? We do have some control, some influence. I am not in congress creating better laws, but I am here – I am a leader in this community. Consider again the question “what are the tools being used against us?” Racist policies and laws, that’s one set of the tools. There are others. There are tools embedded in our culture, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We can be clear about what that means, what those tools are. And we can choose new tools with which to build.

I was rereading an article from a few years back about the characteristics of White Supremacy culture. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc The article outlined some analysis of what is meant by the tools of the oppressive culture, along with suggestions to counter these characteristics.

Before I rattle off a list, let me reiterate what I said about the idea that addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy. The Patriarchy certainly did not invent addiction. Addiction has served as a useful tool for maintaining control of the gender norms of our society. Similarly, this list of characteristics of White Supremacy includes, for example, perfectionism. White Supremacy has not invented perfectionism, it merely uses that tool to maintain control of racial norms in our society.

There are more than a dozen characteristics listed in the article: Perfectionism, Fear of Open Conflict, Either/Or Thinking, a Right to Comfort, Power Hoarding, and the idea that there is Only One Right Way – these are some of the characteristics on the list.

Again, this is one group’s considered analysis of the characteristics. They may be right on the mark, but this isn’t an exact science. We’re talking cultural analysis here, not dictionary editing.

But consider this: I have been using this analysis for several years in my ministry with this congregation.

I have been working to build a multicultural beloved community – a community that runs counter to the regular pressures of White Supremacy culture. Perhaps you have noticed, for example, the importance we place on imperfection and grace, on growing from our mistakes rather than not having any mistakes. Or perhaps you have noticed our willingness to have conflicts, to not shy away from differences and disagreements. We struggle to do it, but we value healthy conflicts in this community.

We have talked for years about “shared ministry.” White Supremacy culture uses the tool of “Power Hoarding.” Power Hoarding is marked by people who have “the best interests of the organization at heart” but resist change and see those calling for change as being “ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced.” We don’t do that here. I and other leaders work to share the power, to welcome change, to listen to dissent. We find our way to still move forward, adjusting as we go to the insights that arise.

You may notice these characteristics dovetail with each other. That emphasis on Shared Ministry connects with our pluralistic theology, which in turn counters the message of White Supremacy that there is Only One Right Way to solve a problem or be in the world. Our openness leads us to embrace a both/and perspective rather than an either/or mindset.

We have been using the better tools in the congregation for years. Ours is a culture of growth and learning rather than perfectionism, of appreciation of differences rather than fear of open conflict, of plurality rather than rigidity, of shared ministry rather than power hoarding, of kindness rather than politeness.

Our congregation is a living and thriving example of what can happen when we use these different tools. We’re not a perfect example, of course. We stumble and are still figuring it out. But that’s part of the point. We are working to build a beloved community together.

I do spend a lot of time, especially during the pandemic, talking about the value of community. But I am not just applauding conformity. I am not lauding a happy, feel-good, touchy-feely, agree-to-disagree, false-unity kind of community. I am talking about the hard work of being real and authentic together while working for more justice and compassion in the world.

If you are interested in learning to take down White Supremacy, the work can be done in layers. Big picture: pay attention to legislation and the racial consequences of our legal practices, particularly as they impact the poor. That’s where the most effective change can occur. This is what I find exciting in Kendi’s book. We can make important changes, moral changes for the good of our society.

And on another level, you can stay sober and stick it to the man. Do what you can to welcome a change of heart within yourself, an opening of grace in your life that you may continue to learn and grow. A change of heart is not something that happens once and you can check the box. It is an ongoing experience. And, that’s where you have the most control, your own life and habits.   

And finally, to dismantle White Supremacy, build something better in every place you are – home, church, school, work, your circle of friends. Use the better tools. I’ll include the full list from that article I mentioned when I publish the sermon. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc

But the most important piece, at every level, is to live fully the convictions of equality and liberation. It is not enough to think about all this or sigh about it. We have to walk with the wind, move toward the trouble and work together. Change is needed and change happens through our living and our actions. Investigate the tools being used against us and explore how we can use different tools to build something better together.

In a world without end

May it be so

Heal the World

Radical Joy for Hard Times Logo

Heal the World

Rev. Douglas Taylor and Trebbe Johnson

1-10-21

DOUGLAS: I begin memorial services with words that essentially say we are here to mourn a loss and celebrate a life. We gather in both grief and gratitude. This morning I say this to us as well. We gather in grief and gratitude for this past years’ worth of plague. It has been one year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19, a man in the Wuhan province of China. Since then, over 1.9 million people around this world have died from this plague. We are likely to hit the 2 million mark before the end of this month, possibly within the coming week. It has been a year, and the illness continues to spread.

In the United States alone, we are adding 2k to 3k deaths to that total each day; we approach the 400,000 mark as a nation. And yet, we’ve recently experienced a turning point in the politics of our country. We have vaccines beginning to be distributed, indeed a few members of the congregation have received their first dose. Better days are coming. But we are still in the thick of it.

So we gather this morning in mourning. We gather in grief for what has been lost and in gratitude for the great turning we are experiencing. On balance, there is much for which we can be grateful. But before we tumble too quickly into that sigh of relief, let us pause together to acknowledge our losses and our grief. This has been a rough year.

As Trebbe shared in the announcements, her organization Radical Joy for Hard Times is hosting a Global Day of Mourning to commemorate a year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19. In connection with that, I’ve invited Trebbe to share this sermon with me as a conversation. We will take turns asking each other questions over the next few minutes, circling around this theme of grief and gratitude in the pandemic.

TREBBE: This topic has been on my heart for a while now, and I am so glad to be a part of this conversation. I want to start with a question to you first:  

Douglas, what’s it been like to be a minister during the pandemic? What about the challenges of Sunday services online? What about pastoral care? Did you give memorials or weddings or naming ceremonies that couldn’t be done or had to be done in some other way? And all this while we are creating a new building!

DOUGLAS: On March 22nd we held our first 100% online streaming worship service. I titled that sermon “How to Stay in Touch without Touching.” I reminded us on that Sunday morning back in the spring that our core as a faith community is not found in a shared belief but in shared values. One deep value that is like a golden thread for us is the value of connection. And this pandemic has hit us right at the heart of who we are a faith community together. I also reminded us of an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And I encouraged us to slow down that we might go together and go far.

Since that time, I have struggled with some aspects of this ministry in a pandemic. I was initially thrown by the difficulty of preaching when everyone is on mute and my screen is focused on the manuscript rather than your faces. It has felt like preaching into the void. It helps to imagine you all listening. It has grown easier with practice.

The other significant challenge has been not being able to visit the sick and people in nursing homes. I have relied on a ministry of presence and have struggled with how to keep connected with people who are in nursing homes and under COVID-19 restrictions.

On top of that, this pandemic reactivated my depression – which, as I talked about last month, tends to lead be into believing the worst about myself and my capabilities as a minister.

By the fall, most of that was under better control. I was on medication, I was more familiar with the ways we could use Zoom in worship, and I discovered many of you were also reaching out to each other – keeping in touch in this time of no touching.

You asked, Trebbe, about rites of passage and I note that the very last event we held in person at the Presbyterian building was the memorial service for Heda Libby on March 15th. I have officiated at other graveside and funeral services as well as an outdoor wedding since then, and each has been strained by the difficulties of the pandemic, each has been adjusted or modified to allow for some of that we need to do while allowing for the reality of health and safety precautions. None of us are untouched by this pandemic.

Trebbe, what challenges have you faced over this pandemic, what losses and changes in your work have occurred?

TREBBE: The biggest loss for me, of course, was that my beloved Andy, my husband died. He didn’t die of COVID, but of advanced liver cancer, which was diagnosed just five days before he died. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to stay at the hospice facility with him, to do ceremony with him, and talk about what it meant to him to die. And he went without regret, remorse, bitterness, or anger. He was ready, and that was quite beautiful. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath.

To be perfectly honest, there have been many times during this pandemic when I’ve also been grateful that I’m a natural loner, an introvert. I think it’s been much easier to be isolated than it has for those who are extroverts and depend on the company of others for their energy. But I must say I have missed physical contact a lot, especially after Andy’s death, although I still talk to one or two friends on Zoom or on the phone every day even now, five months later.

Because I’ve been thinking and writing for decades about the relationship between grief and beauty and joy, I think this pandemic has expanded my sense of compassion. I often feel like the stories of countless others are kind of hovering in a place in my consciousness that is somewhere between imagination and memory. The combination of my grief over Andy’s death and that widening sense of the suffering of others is what prompted me to create a Global Day of Mourning. 

Douglas, tell me, what does it mean to you to grieve?

DOUGLAS: Growing up in an alcoholic home, strong emotions were frowned upon, anger and sadness were like weakness in some ways – at least that was the unspoken message I’d picked up. So I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life figuring out how to be appropriately angry or healthfully sad. One clue I keep returning to over the years is that such emotions are rooted in love and fear.

“Sorrow comes where love abides” is a phrase I say in the benediction of most memorial services. Our grief is borne of our love, and sometimes of our fear that the love is gone, never to return. To grieve is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Grief is a consequence of love. And love, really, is what this whole human experience is about.

Trebbe, why would we want to set aside a day to mourn? Wouldn’t it be better to try to get over it and focus on positive things?

TREBBE: I love this question! First of all, it means to get real. It means to allow ourselves to feel the pain in our hearts and express it. I think something that often happens is that people feel like they should be controlling their own suffering because they presume that someone else is suffering more acutely. Someone apologized to me for grieving the death of her cat when I was grieving the death of my husband. I said, “No! Your cat died! That’s your sad reality right now!” There is a great effort, especially in this country, with our image of relentless positivity, to “get beyond” suffering, to “put it behind us.” And what happens is that we do that, or attempt to do it, without facing it our sorrow in the first place! How can you put something behind you if you haven’t faced it? 

So we have to face the sorrow, whatever it’s about—the death of a loved one, your inability to see your new grandchild at Christmas, your extremely confusing and isolating first year of college. We have to accept the reality of sadness and cry over it. Since Andy died, I cry whenever I have to, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. In the beginning, that crying was like having something absolutely wrenched out of me, like being flayed, it was so painful. But then, every time, what happens is, we cry and the crying itself seems to heal something. I often have had the feeling that the grief itself is pushing me back out of its own dark well, back into the light.

And that brings me to another understanding of what it means to grieve. It also means not staying there in that deep well beyond the necessary time! That doesn’t mean, in my experience, that you go through a certain number of weeks or months and then you start feeling better. It means you step in and out of deep grief daily. And I believe in experiencing both the dark and the light fully. When we’re in the well of grief, we need to just cry. And then, when it’s over, we need to look around and say, What’s calling me now? What’s beautiful? How can I contribute? How can I live with as much passion and commitment and intention as possible?

Douglas—when you consider ways to grieve, what comes to you? Are some ways of grieving better, or healthier, or more likely to lead to healing than others?

DOUGLAS: A few weeks back we had a Sunday service with a pre-recorded sermon from Rabbi Sharon Brous. In that sermon, the rabbi talked about three movements we should go through as we move through difficult times. First we should grieve, she said. What follows is a capacity to speak truth and our ability to build a new future. This is a powerful blueprint the Rabbi offers us, for national and global change as well as how to navigate the personal losses of our lives.

You ask if there are some ways of grieving that are better or healthier than others – to which I refer back to this blueprint. Does your grief allow you to then speak truth or does it bid you to hide and be ashamed of what has occurred? Does your grief allow you to imagine a better day ahead?

Nationally, I think our communal grief response to the coronavirus has not been healthy or productive because it has not led us to speak a communal truth about it. Too many lies have been allowed to flourish in the shadows of our loss and pain. There has been little to no acknowledgement by our government of the losses due to the plague. I believe our government is the body that could rightly lead us into a national communal recognition of this experience and a conversation of how we can move through and beyond this experience together.

This is an experience the whole world is having, that our country is sadly amplifying. We should be able to mourn the daily loss that is rolling over us! The fruit of healthy grieving is the ability to speak truth and to build a new future in the days and weeks to come. Grief is not easy. But it is extremely valuable.

Trebbe how we can do more than cope with heartaches and difficulty, how can we thrive?

TREBBE: To go back to what I said before, we have to begin coping with heartache and difficulty by admitting we’re in heartache and difficulty. We have to reach out to others—by phone, by Zoom, in person, whatever is possible—and honestly express what we’re going through. 

And then we have to remember, in that same context, that same conversation or Zoom call, that others have lives too, and heartache, and hard times. Opening up to the world of others expands our own world. 

It’s also very important to find life, beauty, and meaning wherever we can. I’ll tell you a story. Less than an hour after Andy died, I had packed up our things at the hospice facility and was taking the first load out to my car. It was nearly midnight. When I stepped outside the air-conditioned building, I was astonished to hear the songs of katydids in an immense chorus in the woods and even on the other side of the road. I just put down my bags and stood there listening for a minute. I was infused with the extraordinary brilliance and perseverance of life, even at that most horrible time. Nature, the kindness and human sweetness of other people, something you read—every day the world is waiting to invite us in to the wondrous and beautiful, and we can say Yes to those invitations, even in the hardest, most anguishing moments of our life. 

And finally, I’d say that thriving and not just coping means listening closely to our own inner voices and how they compel us to respond to life. There are opportunities every day, many of them, not just to receive that kindness and beauty but to give it. To say thank you to the person working in a supermarket, to tell your friend something you really appreciate about them, to volunteer for a cause you believe in, to pick up litter on the street. Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are also a thousand ways to give beauty, and we can do that no matter what we’re going through personally.

DOUGLAS: Trebbe, thank you for sharing this time with me. We have revealed together some deep and salient points as we each work to heal the world along with our own hearts this day.

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love   (from MaMuse)

May this hour open for us all a window through our grief and loss into the depth of human care and connection. May love continue to lead us into the ways of truth and grace.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Health of the Self

Health of the Self

Rev. Douglas Taylor

12-13-20

https://youtu.be/TQKW9QGYmOc

This past week Gallup polling released results from its annual ‘Health and Healthcare’ survey which it does every November since 2001. In this poll, Americans are asked to report on their own mental or emotional wellbeing. You could say your mental health is “excellent, good, only fair or poor.” Since the onset of this polling, the results have been rather consistent, around 85% of respondents rating themselves either Good or Excellent. The range over the years has gone at high as 89% and down to 81%. Until this year, of course, when the numbers dropped to 76%.

https://news.gallup.com/poll/327311/americans-mental-health-ratings-sink-new low.aspx?fbclid=IwAR3PemtF4dpU3tMrRdA5pP_OkRv_VhPqYI6uyLuCSuiOIp9vHgFY6uDzSTs

This is not a crisis. But it is a notable variation in an otherwise rather consistent trend. It’s like the whole world is sad and stressed. The obvious culprit in this scenario is the CoVid-19 pandemic. People are feeling constrained and uncertain about the future. There are financial concerns and health concerns weighing heavily on people’s minds – which exacerbates one’s sense of mental wellbeing.

The analysis of the polling results gets even more interesting when you notice some of the demographic subgroups and how they responded. Nearly every subgroup saw a decrease the number of people reporting themselves to have excellent mental or emotional wellbeing: both male and female, Republican, Independent, and Democrat, married, non-married, white, non-white, all the age ranges and income brackets. The news is that women dropped by more points than men – but women dropped 10 points while men dropped 8. (A notable exception is the political affiliation, but remember the survey was done just after the election last month so Democrats dropping by a small number and Republicans by a larger number is easy to interpret.)

In general, the trend is that across-the-board fewer people report their mental and/or emotional wellbeing as good or excellent. There is one additional anomaly in this report that I’ll come back to in a few minutes. But let me first ask:

How are you doing? This has been a rough year. Would you say your mental and emotional wellbeing is excellent or good? Would you rate it as fair or poor? How are you doing?

Me? I would not rate my mental health at Excellent or even Good this year. It has not been a good year for me. It has been good in the past – I think most of the time I have served as minister to this congregation my mental health has been good. But this year my mental health has been fair to middling with bouts of awful. I have been struggling mightily this year with depression.

I tell you this for two reasons – and neither of those reasons is that I need you to take care of me. I have my colleagues and friends; I have my family and my medical professionals to support me. I mention my own struggle not because I need you to fix me or save me. I am getting the help I need.

Instead, I mention my own struggle with depression for two reasons in particular. First, to serve as a witness. You may be in a bad spot yourself. Mental illness has a weighty stigma clinging to it. In her book Stubborn Grace, UU minister Kate Landis talks about how religion in particular would in the past (and in some corners still today) equate mental illnesses with moral failings or displeasure from god. To this day, people bury their shame and hide in secrecy rather than reveal something like the struggle I’ve been in. So, I bear witness. This is hard enough without adding secrecy and shame to the mix. You may be struggling with a mental illness. You are not alone. God is not against you. Your faith community can be of support to you.

The second reason I mention my own struggle is for acknowledgement.  You may have witnessed me these past nine months stumbling now and then; and you may have thought to yourself, ‘he’s not doing well.’ I share my struggle to acknowledge what you may have wondered about. You were right. Part of what happens in my depression is I drop important things, I forget things, I get exhausted and can’t follow through on things. So, I offer this as acknowledgement. I’ve been working on ways to overcome these difficulties. I have some tricks and strategies to keep up with it all. If you’ve been concerned, I want you to know you have a good eye, trust yourself, thank you.

And, if you have not been concerned – if you had no idea how much I have been struggling, don’t feel bad, I am very good at hiding my struggling. I am working on not hiding so much. I’ve been working on not hiding for years. I shared with key leaders and staff what I’ve been going through a couple months back. 

And if you are wondering about your own mental wellbeing, I encourage you to find support. This is not a time in which to deal with difficulties alone.

There is a snippet of a song I find keeps returning to me – it is from a music ensemble called Silver Mt Zion. https://soundcloud.com/ifnotnow/when-the-world-is-sick-1 “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” Such a compelling statement, an indictment, and acknowledgement, and a calling back into our better natures. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.”

The whole world is sick right now. The Covid-19 pandemic obviously, but in other insidious ways as well. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” And when the world is sick – how much harder it is for you to keep your head up and keep yourself in a positive frame of mind. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” We are not going to be stuck like this forever. We are going to round this bend, we will turn this corner, the planet will swing on its axis and the sun will shine more again, and it will happen soon – sooner than you expect. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” This too shall pass.

If you find you need a little extra support right now, a little more than you usually do to get through, by all means, reach out and connect. Now is not the time to hide or to push through on your own. Because I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.

Something turns the ache and pain around, or at least frames in within a context of hope. Something else is happening beyond just this pandemic, beyond just my depression, beyond the suffering you and others experience. Something else is also going on. Something leads us to dream we are beautiful and strong, leads us to become more beautiful and strong.

There is a delightful little surprise in that Gallup pole I mentioned at the beginning. The poll said that everyone is feeling a little worse off than last year. Some demographics are less bad, but everyone has lost ground their self-assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. Every demographic except one. There is one subgroup that actually gained ground, one subgroup whose numbers increased from 2019 to 2020 in their assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. It is the category of people who attend religious services weekly.

This is like finding an article that says people who eat a lot of cheese live longer and I eat a LOT of cheese so I would send copies of that article to all my friends and family as proof that I’m going to be okay. (Except in the real example it is about going to church rather than about eating cheese, so I probably still need to cut down on how much cheese I eat. But that’s a topic for another sermon perhaps.)

Over this past year, people who attended a worship or prayer service weekly showed an increase how many of them say their mental wellbeing is good or even excellent.

In her book Held, Rev. Barbara Meyers talks about the value of religious community in healing and recovery, in mental wellness. She says

People heal in relationship to other people, and acceptance in a community where their presence is honored and where they can be honest about the mental health challenges they face is central to recovery and to living with their situation.” (p23)

In her book, Meyers lifts up the Eight Dimensions of Wellness. Included in the list of eight, as you might expect, are emotional and spiritual wellness. The list also has social, intellectual, and environmental wellness; along with physical, occupational, and financial wellness – which some may see like a stretch. But when you think about it: if you do not have physical or financial wellness, you are more susceptible to being unwell emotionally or spiritually. Mental Illness resides in our brains and as such, effects our entire being.

And week after week, we here in this congregation talk about bringing your whole self to the experience of worship. We talk about needing to nourish our intellect as well as our spirits and our emotions. We talk about service – physical and financial ways to help the world around us. We are a community of healing. Our faith communities are not therapy centers. Instead we are centers of hope and humanity. We are not medical professionals. We are simply communities of caring people. Who better to heal the broken than those of us who are also broken?

There is an old and deceptively light book entitled, The Gospel According to Peanuts which is brimming with wisdom. In one strip, Linus is sitting there, eating his sandwich, and he becomes absorbed in his own hands. “Hands are fascinating things.” He says, “I like my hands, I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character.” His sister Lucy looks up with a puzzled expression while Linus goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works…. They may build a mighty bridge, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” And then he turns to Lucy with a flourish saying, “These are the hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy looks at his hands, looks up at Linus, and says, “They’ve got jelly on them.”

But we’re the only ones here to take care of each other. We all have jelly on our hands. Annie

Dillard says,

There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth—only us… unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been.                       – Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (1977)

We are a congregation of jelly-fingered people, of struggling lovers of life, of brokenly half-woke wanderers trying to find our way through to the next day. And the way we are going to make it is by helping each other. By shining God’s love on one another’s woundedness.

Over the years of my own journey with depression and as a witness to the journeys of others with various other mental illnesses, I can tell you that our congregations save lives. Our congregations serve as centers of hope and simple humanity. We spread the message that God is not a bully counting our sins and ready to fling us into punishment and suffering. The world is not rigged, we declare, it is not designed for catching us in mistakes.

When we falter, when we slip, we are here to help each other. Do not hide your sadness or your pain, we are here to help each other. That’s the amazing thing about this or really any religious community that is doing the work of the spirit – however that manifests. We are God’s hands, helping each other to rise again. Our hands, our jelly-covered, broken, grief-stained hands are the hands of grace in a world of heartache.

How are you doing? Are you holding on? I need you to hang in there. I can help. Me? I’m better than I was earlier this year, but I’m still kinda battered. But I know how we’re going to make it through. I’ve seen the kindness and the care that runs like a golden thread throughout this community. I have witnessed the grace. I have experienced our healing. And I have dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.

In a world without end

May it be so

Benediction:

May the salvific simplicity of friendship surround us

May the grace of God’s love pour over us and through us

And may all that hinders and isolates us be hushed

in strength of that simplicity and of that grace.

Story: Did You Find Any Pieces Today?

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Did You Find Any Pieces Today?

A story about Tikkun Olam

by Douglas Taylor

When Mariam was a child, her favorite thing was when her grandfather would visit and tell her stories at bedtime. They lived nearby and so she was able to get a bedtime story from him at least once a week. She loved to hear his stories. And her favorite was the story about the shattered vessels.

“It is my favorite as well,” he would always say. And then he would tell her, “There are many versions of how the world came to be. But the best one is Tikkun Olam because we get to take part. At the beginning, God created Love, and there was so much Love it filled ten large vessels. And God sent those vessels to the world. But the Love was so powerful and so much, that it could not be contained by the vessels. The Love burst the vessels, it shattered them. The Love broke into many pieces and was scattered all over creation, all over the world.”

“And it is our job to find all the pieces?” Miriam would ask.

Her grandfather would smile and nod, “Yes Miriam. That is our part in creation, we need to gather all the scattered pieces and bring them back together to repair the world.”

And then he would lean closer to her and ask, “And did you find any pieces today?”

She always had an answer for him. When she was five, there was always a sparkly rock or a beautiful sunset she would mention to him. On this day, she said, “I found a very pretty feather today.”

“A feather?” he would say, impressed. “Tell me about it.” And she would.

One time she asked, “Grandfather, I have figured this out, right? It’s like a big hide and seek game, and I need to find all the bright and beautiful pieces and collect them.”

Her grandfather would smile down at her adoringly. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.”

That was when she was five. Later when she was twelve, she had found a different answer. She still loved that story. She still asked for that one as often as any other story each week. He would tell her about the Love and the shattering vessels and the scattering of the pieces. And he would ask, “Did you find any pieces today?”

As a mature twelve-year-old, she was proud to tell him. “I have figured it out, grandfather. I used to think the pieces were pretty things, like glitter that had exploded all over everything. But now I know it is not about finding shiny rocks. It’s about love. Isn’t that right grandfather?”

“Love?” He said, smiling at her. “Maybe,” he would say with a shrug. “It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It’s good.” And then he asked, “Tell me more about the Love you have found this week.”

And she would. She would tell him about how she loved her parents and how she loved him and grandmother, and on and on.

Later, when she was in high school, he would still come over sometimes and they would talk. Sometimes she would ask him to tell the story of Tikkun Olam – even though she was too old for bedtime stories. He would tell her and he would ask “Did you find any pieces today?”

And she would tell him about kindness she had given or received. About a boy who helped her figure out the answer to a homework problem, or the time she helped a stranger who had fallen in the grocery store. She said, “I think it is silly that I used to think the pieces of God’s love were shiny rocks. And it is embarrassing that I thought it was about something as mushy as love. It must be about kindness. Do I have it right this time grandfather?”

And he would smile and shrug, “Maybe. Tell me more about the kindness you found this week.”

The years went on and Miriam grew older. She fell in love and got married. She asked her grandfather to tell her favorite story at the wedding – which everyone loved.

A few years after that, when she was in her early-twenties, her grandfather grew ill and went to the nursing home. She visited him every week and he would ask her to tell him stories. Which she did. She would tell him her favorite story about Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. And he would ask her, “Did you find any pieces today?”

One day when he asked that of her, she was quiet for a while, thinking. She said, “Grandfather, I think I finally get it. The pieces are not just beautiful, shiny things. But they are not love or kindness either. It’s all of it. All of it together. Isn’t that right?” she asked.

He smiled up at her adoringly and shrugged. “Maybe. It is a mystery. We tell the story and we ask our questions. It is good.”

And so her life went on. She had a career helping people in her way. She and her spouse had a child together and she told her child the story. And each day, she would find a few piece; she would look for beauty and show it to others; she would make her life and the lives of people around her better; she would repair the world.

The end

The Blessing in the Breaking

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The Blessing in the Breaking

Rev. Douglas Taylor

11-15-20

A colleague from an earlier generation, Elizabeth Tarbox, has a story she tells which she calls “The Teaching Bean.” (from Evening Tide 1998; by E. Tarbox, p 15-16) When she was a child her step mother gave a lima bean to her and to her sister. She showed the girls how to set the bean in wet blotting paper, how to set the paper in a jar, how to set the jar on a windowsill in the sun. She told them to watch the bean over the next days and weeks.

A little later that morning, Elizabeth snuck back up to the window, removed her bean and “polished it up with a bit of furniture polish.” And then she put it back in the jar. She writes, “It was all shiny now and smelled much better than my sister’s bean.”

Over the follow weeks Elizabeth witnesses her sister’s bean swell and send out a white root followed a sweet green shoot arching up out of the jar. Soon, her sister’s jar was a mess of roots and shoots and the bean was ready to be planted. Meanwhile, her own bean did very little beyond getting a bit wrinkly and eventually shriveling up to fall to the bottom of the jar. After a while, she just threw it away.

Reflecting on this experience, Tarbox writes:

“How often have I covered things with furniture polish to make them shiny, to make them smell better? How often in my life have I cared more about the way things looked, and how they smelled, rather than how they really were? I spent half a lifetime covering my feelings with the emotional equivalent of furniture polish, thinking that if I looked good and smelled good the ache inside would go away.” The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox

I know something about that ache. I am familiar with that urge to cover up and hide the messy parts of my life. But real life is messy and a little smelly. It’s okay. In fact, it’s better when we let it be a little messy and a little smelly. It’s worth it. Because amazing things can arise from places in our lives that are messy and flawed and broken. Elizabeth’s bean remained perfect and pretty until it shriveled up and fell to the bottom of the jar. But her sister’s bean smelled bad. Her sister’s bean broke – it formed a crack and a small tendril of life emerged.

Like Rev. Tarbox, many of us were trained by our society to try to be perfect, to pretend to have no flaws, to fit in – or at least to stand out in only the most expected and acceptable ways. We have not been enculturated to honor our cracks and breaks, our failures and mistakes. The lesson in the song Japanese Bowl by Peter Mayer is a wisdom we usually stumble upon later in life. Too often, we have to unlearn the dream we were fed that a good life, a happy life involves the image of perfection. Too many of us grew up trying to be perfect, while our neglected messy spirits were left to shrivel up and fall to the bottom of the jar.

But fear not. Unlike a shriveled bean, a shrivel spirit is not beyond salvage. Elizabeth Tarbox continues her ruminations on the lessons she learned from that bean. She writes:

“But spirits are not like beans, thank god. They may shrivel with neglect, but as long as life persists there is the chance to wash off the polish and redeem the growing thing inside.” – The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox

A chance, she tells us. There is always a chance to redeem your spirit and break open anyway. Today, let us give thanks for the ways our broken hearts and broken spirits have held unexpected blessings for us, openings through which life and light may find its way.

Carol Mikoda’s piece about “Listening” which we heard in the readings reminds me of what Elizabeth Tarbox’s bean is trying to teach her. Mikoda urges us to listen. “You might hear its message, meant for you, about being brave, about breaking off the coatings applied over the years for protection.” And we can do the hard work of peeling back the layers of polish and shielding, that we may uncover our broken hearts once more.

Many of us have tried to be successful, accomplished, cool, independent, self-sufficient, and on occasion – perfect. We thought it would make us feel happy or at least make other people think good things about us.

But perfection is a trap. It tempts us with the self-destructive belief that if we just try harder and become better, we will be able to avoid the painful experiences of shame and failure. And worse, when we are unable to be perfect, we mask our imperfection rather than embrace it. We hide and cover up, lie and deny the messy truth about who we really are.

I suppose there are people in the world who do not learn from their mistakes. People are messy and complicated beings. Some folks can’t see their own faults and flaws, and thus can never work to overcome them. They never admit to being wrong or needing help. And they end up living small and limited lives. Perfectionism is destructive. Embracing your mistakes and flaws, your beautiful brokenness, will set you free.

In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohan calls us to “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

So, go ahead and be broken. It won’t make you feel better, necessarily. But it will set you free. Being broken doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It just means you are able to grow. The bean that breaks, that splits open, is able to send out the roots and tendrils of life; able to grow. There is a blessing in the breaking. There is a secret power that can only be found in failing or falling apart. From the crack, a new thing can arise. You can arise. A deeper, truer aspect of yourself may emerge from the broken mess. Because that’s what life does.

Now, I am not suggesting you go out and start breaking things or aim to fail. I am not encouraging us to stop trying to be better people or stop working hard for something worthy of our efforts. All I am saying is to not despair for the mess we are in. Part of the brokenness is what comes after the break. Part of the brokenness is the blessing that can be uncovered as well. The brokenness is not the important part of this whole thing, our response is.

And I am not trying to say we can slap a silver lining on everything. What I am saying is we should not pretend the storm clouds are not storm clouds – because in seeing them for what they truly are, we can look past them to what truly matters. What I am saying is we do better when we speak the truth of our situation rather than pretend all is well. From the truth – the messy, uncomfortable, sometimes painful truth – there is then room for growth and forward movement.

By acknowledging the brokenness, by incorporating it into our identity and the story we tell about ourselves, we shift the story from ‘the brokenness’ to ‘the ways in which we have overcome the brokenness,’ to the blessing that arose from inside the crack, to whatever came next in the story. 

I have spent more pulpit time this election cycle on the dire concern for our continued democracy than I usually do. In general, I am not a very political preacher. But we are living in distressing times and there is much that has been broken in our civil society. What I am striving to do is speak the truth, to not hide or conceal or pretend the problems away. Instead, I long to declare with L. R. Knost that we ought not be “dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended.

And so it may be with your heart or your spirit or whatever that bean from our story would mean for you. It is broken, but there is still a way to mend it. Mending is what we do.

Our children’s story today was a version of the concept of creation in Jewish mysticism – Tikkun Olam. God’s love is shattered into countless pieces and scattered across creation. Our job, as co-creators, is to keep bringing the pieces together, to gather in the shattered bits of love.

The next time it feels like something bad has happened, or something precious has broken, try this: grieve. Feel the loss, don’t pretend it didn’t happen or it didn’t matter. Grieve. And speak the truth about what it was and what the failure or fracture has meant to you – to us.

Then, watch. Healing doesn’t just automatically happen. Yes, it is a natural process in us, we do heal – but it is not always automatic. As other’s have said, time does not heal all wounds. Love can heal most of them, over time. But that will always be a messy and complicated love – so it won’t ever heal perfectly.

What I suggest you watch for, in the midst of your brokenness, is the unexpected opening for life that can appear. It is not going to appear if you polish your bean to pretend it can look and smell better than it really does. But it will appear if you step back and let the messy failures be what they are. And remember, the happy ending that may come won’t be perfect. The blessing that may come won’t fit you and your hoped-for life in the most wonderful way.

Consider this pandemic. This has been a hard time. People have died and people are suffering and there is much for me to get angry about. The truth is important here; grieving what has been lost is important here. But our response to it all is where the blessing will be found. Our response has been to learn new ways to help each other, new ways to keep in contact, to find life-giving meaning emerging now that would not have emerged in this way without this great fracture in our lives.

And we, unlike Elizabeth’s lima bean, can always have that polished washed off. Our spirits, thankfully, are always ready to thrust out that thin and delicate tendril of life. We, blessedly, can heal from the fractures and mistakes of our days. Perfection has not yet ruined us. We can still reach for the bright and lasting light, gather in another piece, bring ourselves and our world a little closer to wholeness – one piece at a time.

In a world without end,

May it be so.