Sermons 2015-16

Longing for Leap Day

Longing for Leap Day
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 28, 2016

What if Leap Day really were a free day on the calendar? What might it be like to wake up tomorrow, February 29th, to discover it wasn’t Monday? If it were instead an extra day spring up between Sunday and Monday that doesn’t exist except once every four years as an extra day? That it was a completely unscheduled and unencumbered day. A free 24-hours. What would you do? What do you want to be doing in life that you might do with even a small corner of time unexpected?

There is a one-panel cartoon showing God reviewing the slips of paper from the Suggestions box in heaven. “Let see, ‘Needed, more time.’ ‘Not enough hours in the day.’ ‘Could have used more time.’ ‘Not enough time for everything.’ Sheesh, I know what I’ll do different next time.”

This is similar to the “What if you won the lottery?” question, except with the original version, winning the lottery – though unlikely – is possible. Either way it comes down to a question of desires and priorities. What do you want?

The monthly worship theme through Soul Matters in February has been Desire – How are we a people of Desire? ‘What do you want?’ is a simplified version of the question. William Penn wrote, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

So, what would you do with your time? Tomorrow morning you wake up and find it is true, you really have the whole day to do what you want. No work, no appointments, no classes, no obligations. What would you do? Go to a show, order in Thai food, visit a museum with a friend, eat ice cream, read a book, go to the gym, snuggle with a loved one, go ice skating? I fear I might just fritter the time away playing computer games and taking a nap.

I also think I might not be the only one who would do that. But maybe rest and relaxation have become a scare priority in an otherwise busy and unbalanced life. Perhaps play is the important thing that does not currently fit in your life. Ponder this for a moment. What do you think you would do, and why?

Time is the ultimate limited commodity. Time is what no one seems to have enough of. Yet all have exactly the same amount of time each day, and we will never have more time hours or an extra day. All the best Time Management techniques are not really about managing time, they’re about managing priorities. The reality is we each have just these 24 hours, this handful of moments; we have ‘right now’. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us “The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”

So to ask about time is really to ask about priorities and to ask ‘what is important to you.’ And to circle back to the parallel question about winning the lottery, to ask about money is also simply a question of what is important. “Look well, therefore to this day.”

Of course, this sermon is serving as the opening of our annual Stewardship drive. Have you ever heard the concept of tithing applied to your time? What percentage of your time do you give to the various demands and passions of your life? When we talk about pledging now we don’t talk as much about dollars so much as percentage. People give 2% or 5%, or are working to get up to 1%. How would that look for time?

A forty hour work week is nearly 25% of the 168 hours in a week. You could make a case for not including the hours when you sleep in your total. That would be akin to the difference between gross income and net income, I guess. For the sake of argument, let us stick with the 168 hours. A tithe of time would be a little over 16 hours which is a lot, it’s unrealistic. But 1% of your time in weekly terms is about an hour and a half. That covers the worship service and part of the coffee hour each week. How much time do you spend here?

This circles back to the question of what would you want to do with your time because this congregation, like all congregations, is a voluntary association. People choose to associate with this community of their own free will. We run by congregational polity and the democratic process. The people who have chosen to join this congregation are the people who create this congregation – create it anew each day.

Much of what goes on around here happens because someone among us makes it happen. The more we put into it the more we have to work with. The more you give, the more you will receive. But I think the giving and the receiving is so mixed together it might be more accurate to think of it as sharing.

In many ways when we talk about stewardship as Time, Talent, and Treasure, the underlying hint is easily heard that the last “t” is the key. Treasure is what this is all about. We want to fund a good budget so the congregation can continue to thrive. While that is important, let the lightning strike me because I am going to say that is just not true. The three go together and if we are going to put one of them above any of the others it has to be Time.

Showing up, breaking bread together, welcoming others, listening and speaking together – these are the pieces that make the community. There is a lot going on around here that is not about the money or someone’s expertise. It is about the people showing up. What do you do with your time? And what does that say about what we hold to be important?

My point here is not far from Wendell Berry’s point in the reading we had this morning about the two mind sets. I initially discarded Wendell Berry’s reading about Exploiters and Nurturers when Bill Thorpe (today’s Worship Associate) brought it to our planning session for this service. I didn’t like the dichotomy. But I liked the point Berry was making.

If I could rewrite it I would cast the language as Exploiting and Nurturing; my argument is not with the premise of the dichotomy so much as the way it seems to cast people in unchangeable roles. ‘There are exploiters and there are nurturers and never the twain shall meet;’ and I don’t agree with that sentiment. I long to behave in nurturing ways as described in Berry’s reading but I have at times acted in exploitive ways by Berry’s definitions.

Exploiters are specialists and their standard is efficiency; I have called on specialists and I value efficiency in myself and others. These are not bad qualities, not necessarily ‘exploitive’ qualities. Exploiters, Berry tells us, serve institutions and organizations; they focus on quantities and ‘hard facts.’ I am too much of a pragmatist to think we could run our lives, or this congregation, or even our country without the disciplines and values labeled as Exploitative by Wendell Berry. Perhaps my argument is mostly with his word choice.

But when I listen generously to his perspective – I think he is saying that if we only focus on efficiency and facts, organizations and specialists, then we miss the point of it all.

He says “The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not.” I would rather say, the specialists and experts in our world are paid better and valued more than the generalist but it shouldn’t be like that. The specialists should serve to support the generalists. Efficiency should serve to support care, money and profit should be in the service of health.

Wendell Berry casts the dichotomy as “one mindset is bad and the other is good.” I cast it as “both mindsets are valuable, but nurturing is the priority.”

In many ways, when I read through that reading a third time in preparing for this service, I saw Wendell Berry was lifting up people and time as the important values, rather than things and results. And saying it like that recalls to mind the words of Dr. King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” when he said: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

There is so much in the world around us and in our lives that is messed up and troubled. Racism, greed, hunger, police brutality, militarism, and extreme materialism. We in this congregation are doing our part – not only to set up a sanctuary of grace and people-oriented values, but also to extend out into the world around us a compassionate and human touch. We are working to nurture the world around us and nourish each soul within our community. And the greatest resource we have is that of time. It is the time we share with each other to listen and care for and help heal one another – that is what the world needs.

This month while the members and friends of this congregation fill in the annual 2016-2017 financial pledge, we can all consider how we are using our time. Please take time for the ice cream and the hike in the woods, the opera and the family movie night, your Small Group Ministry or choir practice or whatever other activity you do that gives you rest and personal nourishment.

But notice also the time you share to serve needs greater than your own. Notice and honor the time you share in support of this congregation or out beyond these walls helping to heal the world. What do you want to do? With whom do you want to spend your time? What do you long for?

Good people, I want you to know that the gifts of time, talent, and treasure you share here are appreciated and are used to create a particular kind of religious community. Thank you for the promise you make to use your resources in this way. Thank you for helping to create a community that is open and welcoming to the seekers and the skeptics, the deeply committed and the occasionally curious, the activists and the agnostics in need of a spiritual home. Thank you. The world needs faith communities such as ours. Thank you.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

God is Love: A Humanist Universalism

God is Love: A Humanist Universalism
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 14, 2016

Some days (moments) I will identify with being a twenty first century man. An Atheist who understands that god is a mythopoetic construct; -a manufactured means that assists some people in relating to the Universe.
Other days (moments) God & I have a good laugh about that, and I can easily hear the soft booming voice of Almighty God herself saying, “What did you learn as an Atheist, Billy? How did that taste? …that freedom from Belief?
…and were you? …free from Belief?”
-Bill Thorpe

Bill’s poem reminds me of an old story about Rev. Gordon McKeeman from when he was president of Starr King Seminary in California in the mid 80’s. McKeeman would meet regularly with the presidents of the other seminaries in the consortium and one day the others questioned him, “We know you are a Unitarian Universalist and that some of you are theist and some are atheist. But we haven’t been able to figure out which you are?” McKeeman answered “On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays I am a theist. But on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays I am an atheist.” “What about Sundays” they asked him smiling. “Well, on Sundays,” he sighed, “it is anybody’s guess.” After a short time they all agree that it was much the same of the rest of them.

Gordon McKeeman was a Universalist before the 1961 merger of our two traditions. He is far from the first or only Universalist to be an atheist or in his case an occasional atheist. But it makes me wonder what the theology is like. The basic stance of Universalism is that God is love, God’s love is so powerful we will all be united with God in the end – Universal salvation, everyone goes to heaven. But how does that work as an atheist framework? How does that work from a perspective that does not recognize a deity, or heaven, or a supernatural source that loves us. Somehow it works, I’ve seen it in people. Somehow it is even an obvious possibility given the evolution of Universalist theology over the past two and a half centuries.

And I think this is more than merely an academic question about our history. The beliefs and values in Universalist theology and in Humanist thought are prevalent among us today. To uncover the examples of the blending of Universalism and Humanism from history will offer a helpful framework for our contemporary experiences.

My mother, Dr. Elizabeth M. Strong, has had an abiding interest in Universalist history and theology. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of Universalist religious education, which gave her ample insight into the evolution of our theology. She has a succinct way of outlining the nuances of the formative Universalist perspectives.

The three main streams of Universalism that were espoused in the beginning years of Universalism in America are:

George deBenneville’s mystical universalism was evident in many sects (German Pietists, Quakers, Effrata Community) and held that “in the end all shall be well.”
John Murray’s Trinitarian Universalism that held in Adam all fell and in Christ all were saved.
Hosea Ballou’s Deterministic Universalist held that God saves, not Christ, and that you cannot not be saved. All are saved.

The Restorationists modified Ballou’s determinism by holding that there would be some punishment before salvation for those who had committed egregious sins.
-Elizabeth M. Strong

These are all example of Universalism – they all claim Universal Salvation and God’s love – but each slightly different in how it works and why it works. I find that when I or others talk about Universalism, it is often Ballou’s version presented. Rather than presenting Universalism as a mystical personal experience that ‘all shall be well’ or as a biblical argument constructed around the true work of Jesus Christ, we instead talk about all souls being saved because “God’s love embraces the whole human race.”

It is perhaps jarring to talk about Universalism as “deterministic,” as in ‘Hosea Ballou’s Deterministic Universalism.’ That word is most associated with John Calvin and his pre-destination theology, which Unitarians and Universalists have historically rejected. Calvin said there is a set number of people that will be saved, God already knows who will be going to heaven and who will not. There is nothing you can do to change the way it is going to turn out. It is set. It is already determined.

I remember a Presbyterian church-history professor talking about this Calvinist doctrine in a class I was taking back in seminary. I declared that Universalism takes Calvin’s doctrine of predestination to its most optimistic extreme: Yes, it is set and determined. God knows exactly who and how many are going to heaven: everyone. Gordon McKeeman suggested the image of the “last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable…to resist the power and love of the Almighty.” You cannot not be saved.

As Universalism developed from that earliest time in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the implications of this radical theology began to unfold. The Universalists continued to believed in God as a loving father who will call all His children home, but they began to take the next step, ‘why not strive to make heaven here on earth?’ A version of this perspective is in Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement (1803). The only logical response to having God’s love poured out on to you is to do likewise to others.

Many Christians throughout history rejected the idea of Universalism outright. They couldn’t see past the usefulness of eternal damnation as a motivation for good behavior. They rebelled against the notion that Jesus dying on the cross was not what secured our potential of salvation, that instead our salvation has always guaranteed. What then, Christians have countered, was the point of the gospels if not to have Jesus’ death serve that great cosmic purpose of securing salvation?

The answer from the Universalists is that Jesus’ death is not the biggest point – his life is our example of how we ought to respond to God’s love. As the passage says in 1st John, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21) and “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (4:11) A great many Universalists were compelled by their faith to speak out against injustice, to work faithfully on behalf of those in need, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give voice to the voiceless. Why do you act for justice or offer compassion in the world? Universalists historically sought justice because how else ought we to respond to the love that is poured out for us! The history of American social reform is littered with the names of Universalists: Lydia Jenkins, Mary Livermore, Clarence Skinner, Clara Barton, and Olympia Brown. Over the generations Universalism continued to evolve, though it ever held that core thread of radical inclusion: that all God’s children are included and our work is to build heaven here on earth.

But it wasn’t until a little over a hundred years after Ballou’s remarkable treatise of Universalist theology that there came a clear theological articulation of the humanistic implications. Ballou had focused on God and the implications of God’s love. In 1915 Clarence Skinner’s book The Social Implications of Universalism offered an optimistic, socialistic vision of the “kingdom of heaven” to be established on earth.

In this shift, the theology of Universalism becomes less about God’s love for humanity and more about humanity’s response to God’s love. Clarence Skinner’s version of Universalist Theology was a key step. Universalism had always had a social reform edge, but that edge was moving in the early 1900’s to the center of its identity. It is in Skinner that we see Universalism make a significant shift of identity in that direction.

And then a few years later, the Humanist Manifesto was released. The Unitarians were embroiled in the Humanist/Theist debate for a little while prior and the Manifesto exacerbated it. The Manifesto did not only say “the time has passed for theism.” It claimed the universe as self-created and humanity as “a part of nature” arising through the evolutionary process. It also articulated that the signers considered “the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life,” and that the act of worship is best described as “a co-operative effort to promote social well-being.” In other words – the purpose and meaning of life is to build a better world. Which that part actually aligns very well with classic Universalist Theology.

In Charles Howe’s book about the history of Universalism, he describes it like this:

Thirty-four men signed the document (presumably no women were invited to do so), thirteen of them Unitarian ministers. Clinton Lee Scott, at that time minister in Peoria, Illinois, was the only Universalist signatory, although two of the Unitarian signers, J.A.C. Fagginer Auer and Charles Frances Potter, also held Universalist fellowship. (Howe, Larger Faith, p103)

Charles Howe goes on to speculate that all Universalists could well be considered ‘humanistic’ in their values and theology based on their professions and affirmations throughout their history of the supreme worth of all ‘human personalities.’ And the insistence on humanity solving humanity’s problems rather than waiting or relying on God’s aid. The institution struggled with the humanists, and most Universalists rejected Humanism as an idea but they never rejected the humanists among them.

Clinton Lee Scott who signed the Humanist Manifesto, for example, was reelected by a significant majority to his post of trustee of the General Convention. And ten years later at the General Conference, the General Superintendent Robert Cummins proclaimed:

Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is Universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome: theist and humanists, unitarian and trinitarian, colored, and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable. – Robert Cummins, superintendent of the UCA

The “colored and color-less” is, I think, an unfortunate turn of phrase but it was 1943 and in context it amounts to a call for racial diversity that was progressive and radical in its time.

The definition of Universalism began to be about creating a ‘universal religion’ that could serve all humanity, a world religion for all people of the world. Universalism became akin to Inclusivism. A full-throated articulation of Inclusivism (and perhaps of Humanist Universalism) would not really come until a few years later with Kenneth Patton’s Charles Street Meeting House in the 1950’s. Patton was supported in that post by Clinton Lee Scott, by the way. It was Scott who put an avowed Humanist into the experimental pulpit where the expressed goal was to create a Universal Religion merging all the world’s religions. What we mean by the name “Universalist” was changing.

And within the next ten years the Universalists would merge with the Unitarians. People tend to think of the Universalists as mostly still Christian and the Unitarians as practically all Atheists. But the truth is far more nuanced, of course.

The critique has come that we are no longer Universalist in our theology, in part because of the introduction of core articulation of our identity that lack a theistic center. If classic Universalism is defined as “God’s transformative love that assures salvation for all” how does is work from a Humanist stance?

The Humanist side of the equation says the source of our human worth is wholly natural. The Universalist side of the equation agrees that there is human worth but that the source is God’s love. And somehow, there are and have been Humanist Universalists. I thought that I had a handle on the solution to this conundrum, but the more I have been poking at this the less I understand how it comes together.

And this is not merely academic. (… I mean, it is academic, but it is also more.) Our community and many Unitarian Universalist communities function with a pluralistic mix of Universalist grace and Humanist skepticism.

And perhaps the best answer I can offer is in the poetic mix from Gordon McKeeman’s answer to his seminary president peers and Bill Thorpe’s yearning to be free. The best answer I have is less about the history and more about the mystery.

Perhaps the best answer I have is not my own answer but an encouragement for each of you to wrestle with the question. What is the source of our worth? That you are of worth – that you are loved – is not the question, that is a given. What is the source of the love that calls to you to respond? Love calls you to respond to the needs for compassion and justice in the world. Your response is important and really it is the point. But it is worth it to also wrestle with the question of where it comes from – what is the source of the love calling you to love the world?

In a world without end,
May it be so.

Joys and Sorrows Inside Out

Joys and Sorrows Inside Out
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 7, 2016

Loss and grief hang within the cusp of every new moment and burgeoning joy of life.  In the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” he tells us that “Nature’s first green is gold.” I have a beautiful green plant in my living room that unfurls a fresh leaf every now and then, a simple pothos plant. The new leaf is different from the others; for about half-a-day it is softer, with a shine like gold. “Nature’s first green is gold.” But gold is the color of fall; gold is the color nature offers as its last color before the brown of death and winter.  Nature’s last color is gold. Yet Frost tells us, paradoxically, “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” A hint of the end is at the cusp of birth.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This is a delightfully complex and nuanced poem. Let me briefly point out one pattern to help me begin my sermon. Rather than a melancholy ode to grief and despair over the momentariness of lustrous beauty, this is a poem about life. The poem explains that in nature the green leaf is the predominant feature for us to notice. The gold is noteworthy, but the green is life.

Then the pattern of the poem continues: The flower is noteworthy, but it is the leaf that is life. Dawn is noteworthy, but day is life. Thus by this pattern, Eden is noteworthy, but grief is life. Robert Frost equates grief with the common green leaf of day.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This is not meant as a melancholy poem, but a full-throated acceptance of life. Grief is life. What an odd sentiment. It is a clever use of a literary device Felix Culpa, or ‘happy fall’, meaning: the mythic story in the Bible about the fall from Eden was a good thing. In this poem, Frost says the same for grief.

Sadly, it is a normal experience in our culture to feel as though you should always be happy and should resist all experiences of grief and sadness. Feeling sad is looked upon as some sort of failing. Sadness is actually a rather useful emotion, rich with potential for personal growth and maturation of the spirit.  I will circle back to Robert Frost’s poem in a moment, but first let me tell you about the same message offered through a children’s animated movie.

This past Friday over 30 people attended our family film night showing of Pixar’s Inside Out. I offered free popcorn, which may have been some of the draw. The movie came out this past summer and …

“has received dozens of industry and critics awards. The film received 15 Best Picture, 21 Best Original Screenplay and 40 Best Animated Feature nominations from over 50 different organizations and associations” (according to Wikipedia which cites “All 2015 Film Awards and Nominations Scorecard”. Metacritic.)

The movie opens with the line “Do you ever look at someone and wonder ‘What is going on inside their head?’” That is the introduction of Joy. Joy is a personification of the emotion inside Riley the protagonist’s head. Soon after we meet Joy something goes wrong: the baby starts to cry: “Hi, I’m sadness.”

The movie imagines that these personified emotions work a console in our heads, pushing buttons, recalling memories, creating our emotional landscape. Joy and Sadness are the two dominant emotions with Fear, Disgust, and Anger playing off of them. The tension between the Joy and Sadness is the heart of the movie. Joy believes that sadness is not a useful emotion. Fear keeps us “safe,” disgust keeps us “from being poisoned physically or socially,” and anger “cares deeply about things being fair.” (lines from the movie)

Early in the development in the movie, the plan was to focus on Joy and Fear. The developers thought it was “like the funniest choice.” [http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Inside_Out] When things got stuck, the director decided to change it to Joy and Sadness. The story still has a lot of funny moments, but rather than simply being funny, it is also poignant. It is multi-layers and sophisticated.

Joy, the dominant emotion in Raley’s head, does not see what sadness is for. Thus, the movie becomes an extended answer to the question, “Why is there sadness?” Mystics and poets through the ages have also worried away at that question. The animated answer aligns wonderfully with the wisdom of the ages.

Jelaluddin Rumi says being human is like being a guest house, in which you invite your emotions in like guests. Like an ‘emotion party’ in your head, Rumi imagines all of these feelings as guests we can welcome in, guests that each have something to offer. Rumi says “Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.”

The movie certainly plays out along that theme. In the movie, each emotion takes a turn at the control console. We might ask ourselves at times – why am I letting anger have the controls; maybe I can let someone else drive for a while? We can invite the emotions in and learn from them.

I like this notion of my emotions as guests. I like how that sets my emotions at a distance from my identity. I am not my anger or my sadness. I can say ‘I am not my fear; I have fear right now but I am not my fear.’ I like that part. And in so doing, I can also see my emotions simply as facts – information about my experiences of the world. My body tells me I am hungry – that is a fact. In a similar fashion, when I am sad – my body is telling me information, it just is a fact. I can’t stop it but I can respond to it

So why do we have sadness. Each emotion is a fact, it happens within us. But it has something to offer. In the movie, there is a scene when Joy is trying to help another character cheer up but she can’t do it. She tries tickling her friend, then distracting her friend from his sorrow, then making a game of doing something else. But then Sadness sits down next to the friend and just says stuff like, “You must be really sad.” “That was really important to you.” Joy, meanwhile, is trying to stop Sadness from making their friend more sad. But what sadness is really doing, is helping the friend acknowledge the fact that he is sad.

One of the things that sadness is for it to help us learn empathy and compassion. Sadness is an isolating experience on its own. But when we welcome it in and move through it as if it is real and important, then later our sadness can become a tool of connection in our lives. In the moment, sadness is an isolating experience. Later, our sadness can become a tool of connection. Our sorrows become connected to our joys and that helps us then become more connected to other people.

Kahlil Gibran says your joy is your sorrow unmasked. “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” In the Pixar movie, Joy and Sorrow learn that they are complimentary. All of the emotions, really, are borne from caring and the deep desires of our lives. Our fears and our anger, our grief – all of it is rooted in the same source as our joy.

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ [Gibran continues] and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” In the movie, the personification of Joy tries to keep sorrow at bay constantly. “Here is a chalk circle and your job is to stay inside it and not touch anything!” But by the end, they learn to work together allowing the person to experience richer, fuller emotions by blending them together.

As we grow and mature, our emotional range expands beyond five possibilities. And it is more than just learning degrees of a single emotion like big sadness and little sadness, we learn about the blending of them. This is the second major lesson from that movie and from that Robert Frost poem. First, sadness is an honorable emotion that helps us uncover empathy and compassion for others. Second, by welcoming our sadness, anger, fear, and other ‘negative emotions’ into our experiences as honorable emotions, we gain the next step of blending them.

My recently retired colleague, Mark Belletini says grief comes in hues, the colors of grief are various.

As a pastel artist, I know in my bones that although forest green and gold are both colors, they are wildly different from each other, both in the feelings they evoke and the associations they offer both heart and eye…

In a similar way, as a griever for six decades, I might dwell for a long time after a loss in sorrow, or anger, or regret, or I might move on to more transformative aspects of the grieving process. But all of these hues and shades are truly, if abstractly, contained within the single-syllable word, grief.  Nothing Gold Can Stay, the colors of grief by Mark Belletini, 2015 [pp xii-xiii]

It is almost a matter of expanding our emotional vocabulary. Discovering new words to explain our feelings opens us to nuanced experiences in life. Normally I would have said I feel angry, but actually it is something a little different – and in so naming it that way I can choose a different way to respond. Perhaps it is really regret or embarrassment that you really feel. Or what you once named sadness is really a mix of fear and anger known as alienated. Or maybe you have discovered that happy/sad mix shown at the end of the Inside Out movie. As your emotional vocabulary expands, so too does the range of what your experiences can mean.

And, as we demonstrate each week with our Joys and Sorrows ritual – a sorrow shared is halved, and a joy shared is doubled. And how many times have you heard someone at the Joys and Sorrows mic say they have something that is both a joy and a sorrow? What we do with our Joys and Sorrows time and how we do it is very meaningful and important.

Spirituality is sometimes defined as ‘what moves you.’ What is it that touches your heart? As a spiritual seeker, when you uncover new meaning or richer meaning in life, there may be an emotional component. Ralph Waldo Emerson called us to pass our experiences through ‘the fire of thought.’ In Emerson’s lexicon, ‘thought’ is not merely analytical reason, it includes intuition as well. A true form of deep spirituality is the exercise of mind and heart on the field of your daily experiences.

So, “nothing gold can stay;” which is why the gold is worth treasuring. But, my there are so many different shades of green to discover! So Eden falls to grief; and each joy, each sorrow, each true deep feeling from within is a shimmer of gold revealing the depths of your love. Sink not into apathy and unfeeling monotony; rise. Though it stinks and burns as your heart breaks anew at each loss or sorrow unbidden, rise. Your grief is hard but worth it. Let your heart love what it will love. Deeper meaning and connections await. Welcome each guest as it arrives.  Nothing gold can stay. So notice as it shines.

In a world without end,
may it be so.

Black Lives Still Matter

Black Lives Still Matter
A Letter, a Reflection, and a Challenge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 17, 2016

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” April 4, 1967

King called for a “radical revolution of values if our country was to survive. He warned against the ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. I consider the way things are playing out today in our country and shudder at his prophetic warning. In the spirit of his words then, I offer my sermon today in three parts: as a letter, a reflection, and a challenge.

Part I – A Letter:

To the offices of

Police Chief, Joseph T. Zikuski (Binghamton)
Police Chief, Brent G. Dodge (Johnson City)
Police Chief, Michael R. Cox (Endicott)
Police Chief, John A. Butler (Vestal)
Sheriff, David E. Harder (Broome County)

I am writing to the police departments of Binghamton, Johnson City, Endicott, Vestal, and Broome County to be in better relationship with the law enforcement officers in my area.

I have been an active participant in the Black Lives Matter movement, our Unitarian Universalist congregation has recently hung a Black Lives Matter banner on the front of our building, and this past fall we hosted a panel “Beyond Ferguson.” We, as a faith community in Binghamton, are committed to being in the midst of the national conversation about racism. One of the key ways to be involved in a global or national issue is to participate in local actions and to build relationships locally. 

Our congregation is predominantly white. We come into this conversation as allies. As a congregation we have been talking among ourselves about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.  We hosted a series of community conversations last winter. One potential partner missing from those community conversations a year ago is the voice of law enforcement. As the host but not the organizer, it was not my place to change the agenda of those gatherings. The efforts of those gatherings were to establish and build relationships in the community with residents, students, activists, and particularly with and among people of color.

Now, I would like to build a bridge with law enforcement in my town to better understand the full scope of the situation. I am aware that the Black Lives Matter movement is not received well by some people in law enforcement. I am aware that some people perceive it as anti-cop. I continue to challenge that perception every opportunity I can. As a leader in the community, I am using my voice to cast the vision of unity rather than division.

If you are interested in knowing what I say to the people in my congregation, here is a link to a sermon I preached back at the beginning of 2015 on racism http://uubinghamton.org/2015/01/selma-to-ferguson/ and here is an excerpt of a recent column I wrote for our congregational newsletter.

When I say Black Lives Matter there are some who want to respond saying All Lives Matter. And initially, there was a point in the movement when the two phrases were complimentary and spoken together. But all too quickly, the phrase All Lives Matter became a counterpoint intended to refute the uncomfortable point behind the phrase Black Lives Matter. We have not hung an All Lives Matter banner on our church because that phrase has become a watered-down way of avoiding the hard work of dealing with the police brutality directed at black people in our country. Our Unitarian Universalist theology clearly affirms that all lives matter. I have no disagreement on that point. But for justice work we often need to take a stand, to focus our perspective and single out a community or an issue that needs attention. Thus: Black Lives Matter.

Sometimes when I say Black Lives Matter there are people who respond saying Transgender Lives Matter or Native American Lives Matter. The people saying these things make a very good point. And they are correct – Black people are not the only minority group being brutalized and murdered. My only response to this is to say that at this moment in time in our culture there is a movement that has momentum with a chance to make a difference. If the Black Lives Matter movement has a positive impact on our justice system, it will help all people. The claim is not that Black Lives Matter more … just that they matter, too.

Blue Lives Matter or Cops Lives Matter is a response that gives me great difficulty. I understand the part about wanting to support police officers. Instead of trying to avoid or tone down the conversation (as All Lives Matter can sometimes do) or nuance and expand the conversation (as the other responses can sometimes do), to say Cops Lives Matter is to deny the issue even exists. In fact, police officer fatalities have been declining for decades. In 2013 nationally there were 107 officers killed in the line of duty – the lowest number of officer fatalities since before I was born. Police officers have a very dangerous job. But it is false to say there is a trend or pattern of black citizens killing cops in the name of Black Lives Matter. Of course the lives of police officers matter. And of course the majority of police officers are good people. Yet the system is obviously broken. Police Officers take an oath to protect and to serve. They should be held to a higher standard in terms of the use of violence and deadly force. Black Lives Matter is not anti-cop. It is against the too-frequent use of deadly force and brutality against people of color.

This is why we have posted a Black Lives Matter banner. Because we “affirm and promote” that all lives matter, we raise a banner proclaiming Black Lives Matter. And by all means, let’s talk about it with each other and out in the world around us.

Let me add, that as a clergy person, I understand my own version of being help to a higher standard. Over the past decade there has been a sea-change in the perspective of clergy and sexual abuse. The scandals proved to be a systemic problem that was initially dealt with as if there were merely ‘a few bad apples.’ The Catholics, and indeed all religious groups, had to learn to think systemically about the issue. I learned that while I was not personally connected to any clergy sexual misconduct, the public perspective of clergy had shifted. I am held to a higher standard in terms of the appropriate use of intimacy. People learned, after the clergy sex scandals, that their automatic trust in clergy is not always founded or wise.

In a parallel manner, all police officers now need to work to rebuild trust that they most likely have not personally broken. I would like to be part of that rebuilding of trust. In that spirit, I ask for two things.

First, I invite you to have coffee with me to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, my congregation, your work, and how you see racism impacting our local area.

Second, I would appreciate the opportunity to do a ‘ride-along’ with any willing officer that I might better understand what your work is like. As a minister, I am often called on to be present in the difficult experiences people live through. I imagine this is true for police officers as well but in a very different way.

I appreciate your consideration of my perspective and I hope to learn more about your perspective. And further, I hope for us to find common ground in creating a more just and compassionate community for all people.

Yours in faith,
The Reverend Douglas A Taylor

 

Part II – A Reflection:

Last week I wore one of the Black Lives Matter buttons everywhere I went. Perhaps you’ve seen the buttons. A member of our congregation has continued to stock the basket with them. Some people have chosen to donate a dollar when they take one, but that was not the intention of the member who makes them available. Anyway, it was last week that I finally put one on. I was in Chicago for half that week and wandering around Binghamton the other half. The maître d’ at one Chicago restaurant commented appreciatively at my button the first day. But other than that, my Black Lives Matter button received no noticeable interest from people around me.

In truth I will admit I have been hesitant to wear the button. Why? That is exactly the question I have been asking myself. Initially my response has been that I am not a buttons or jewelry type of person. But I think it is more than that. There is a biography of William Ellery Channing title The Reluctant Radical. I’ve secretly identified with the sense of personality offered in that title. I have come to see that I push myself to be more of an activist because of my calling and my role as the minister of a progressive congregation. My calling compels me into actions I would otherwise forego.

Left to my own inclinations I would still care about racism and I would still take steps to educate myself about white privilege, micro-aggressions, Dr. King’s legacy of non-violent direct action, and Unitarian Universalism’s stance in favor of equality and multiculturalism. But it is my calling that spurs me to act, that spurs me, though perhaps reluctantly, to shift from being a non-racist to being an anti-racist.

A recent video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm5DWa2bpbs by Marlon James talks about the difference between being a non-racist: a person who does not agree with racism and does not behave as a racist, and an anti-racist: a person who takes active steps to oppose racism in our society. I am comfortably a non-racist. I find myself becoming more of an anti-racist as the years go by. And I don’t think that just wearing that button makes me an anti-racist, but my commitment to wear it despite my hesitation is an example of the shift from non-racist to anti-racist.

And earlier this month I discovered I have shifted enough to be asked to participate in a panel. I’ve been invited to speak up at our sister UU congregation up in Oneonta next week as they consider posting their own Black Lives Matter banner. I’m bringing Shawn Steketee with me; because a lay leader’s perspective may carry a different gravitas there. They want to know more about our process and the community response we’ve received.

I will tell them that so far, when I have talked specifically about my support for “Black Lives Matter” in sermons, newsletter column, and board reports, I have received little feedback and no pushback. Many of my colleagues talk about the responses they receive from with their congregations ranging from mild resistance to severe backlash. Posting the banner and hosting the forum last fall revealed nothing but support. I will tell them I do not interpret that to mean every person in our congregation is in full and unequivocal agreement on this point. Only that we have a general sense of support around here. And that we tried to heed the promptings of the spirit and of wise souls from our past that lived the values we espouse today.

 

Part III – A Challenge:

After the service, Libby Anderson, our worship associate for this Sunday, will lead a discussion about racism, Black Lives Matter, and what we as individuals and as a congregation can do to be more involved and make a difference. My challenge to you is to consider what it would like for you to make that sift from a non-racist to an anti-racist. What would mean for you? What would it mean for us as a congregation?

Perhaps you are an activist already in another aspect of the justice-making tapestry – caring for the environment, women’s issues, LGBTQ concerns, the refugee situation, poverty, or peace. What are the intersections of racism with these other justice issues? Or if this is not something for you personally, how can you support our congregation making an intentional shift from being non-racist to anti-racist?

Perhaps it is as simple as being in relationship with folks in a particular way. Seek out people whose perspective or life situation is different from your own. Learn to listen more deeply.

Perhaps you are only at the beginning stages of any shift that may or may not happen for your life on this issue. Your participation in the conversation is still of value. We are a whole community seeking justice and compassion and spirit together. Our goal is beloved community for all people; this work is one step on that journey.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for people to resist hate; to act not with violence but with love – an undeniable power of soul. In that sermon at Riverside Church one year before his death, when he spoke out as we heard this morning against the war in Vietnam, he warned against the triple threat of Racism, Extreme Materialism (or poverty) and Militarism. He called us to combat the chaos of our times with community. Let our community stand as one more living cell in the great body that shall one day be the Beloved Community for all humanity.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Saint Lucia

Saint Lucia
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 13, 2015

Today, December 13th, is the feast day for Saint Lucy, or Lucia as we would know her. In the old Julian calendar, the 13th is the longest night, rather than the 21st. This morning we held our annual Santa Lucia celebration with the kids parading up behind our Santa Lucia queen while the congregation sings the song. We eat our cookies and hear a little about the legend of Lucia. We’ve been doing this since before I came here. I was curious to know if other UU congregations do this. I found a handful of announcements online from other UU congregations, but not many. This is a rather uncommon ritual.

Of course, it is not out of the blue. We have several members and former members from the Scandinavian countries. That’s the most likely reason we do the pageant as we do each year. The historical person and her events back in 304 AD were in Greece, but the Santa Lucia festivals really took root up in northern Europe.

How many of you remember Ruth Antonson coming up during Joys and Sorrows? This was during the last year or so before she died. She hated Joys and Sorrows, so that indicates how important it was for her to share the story of her husband Arvid who was not able to attend that Sunday when we’d held the Santa Lucia pageant. She told us it was his favorite service to see the kids come in wearing all white while we sang the old song. Ruth said “every year, a little tear would roll down her husband’s cheek.”

But it was not just the Antonsons who have been moved by the pageant. Back in 2012, two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we sat in the sanctuary as our children walked down the aisle singing about darkness and light. We needed that. In the face of senseless tragedy we needed to see our children, to let them know we value them and care for them.

Of course we only tell the sanitized version of the story each year. In that scripted piece, one of our youth will talk about Lucia’s desire to help the poor and to feed people. The version we read out loud each year offer a passing reference to the fact that she was killed – possibly burned at the stake – for religious reasons. The details of the legend are rather more gruesome than that, to the point that some have wondered why we celebrate this story.

According to the more colorful versions of the Lucia legend, the young girl had dedicated herself to God taking a vow of virginity and of poverty. She desperately wanted to give her dowry away to the poor. When her betrothed learned of her plan, he denounced her. This appears to have been a big deal because the governor’s response was to have her forcibly defiled in a brothel and then put to death. The Christian version of her martyrdom claims they could not drag her away to the brothel, even when they hitched a team of oxen to her they could not budge her. They heaped wood around her and tried to burn her at the stake, but the fire would not touch her. Finally they killed her with their swords.

In later medieval accounts of the legend, her eyes were gouged out prior to her execution. Her eyes became sort of her trademark. In much of the artwork about her, there is an extra pair of eyes depicted in a bowl she is carrying or her eyes are closed in the most subtle pieces. She is the patron saint of the blind and people with eye-related trouble. Thus, the cookies refer to eyes.

The version we tell says the cookies are a nod to her cat, “whose green eyes helped her find her way in the darkness.” I scoured all the sources I could but I found no reference to a cat in any of the stories. The cookies are not the cat’s eyes. There is no cat. I did find an Icelandic story about a Christmas Cat, but there is no connection to Saint Lucia there. But Iceland’s legend of the Christmas Cat was an eye-opening introduction to a variety of gruesome and frightening tales related to Christmas.

The Christmas Cat of Iceland is a monstrous feline that will eat anyone who does not own a new shirt or coat. This legend dates back to medieval times with a rather blunt moral – work hard so you will have new clothes or the Christmas Cat will eat you. Exploring this, I uncovered several other examples around the world. In Austria, they is a Krampus Parade in which people dress up as devils who are said to beat naughty children with branches. In Greece, they have stories about Kallikantzaroi who are evil goblins believed to dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas to cause trouble. In South Africa, children are told the story of boy who ate the Christmas cookies his grandmother left out for Santa. In her rage, she killed the boy. His ghost still haunts naughty kids during the season

I have no wish to subject our children to frightening legends just to scare them into being good for the holidays. I am far too much of a Universalist to good down that road now. I believe in a version of God who loves us and lures us toward the good rather than a God of rules and judgement who has to threaten people to get them to be good. So the myths and stories that capture my allegiance are the ones that don’t rely on fear to motivate behavior.

All of these stories are stories told in the service of something important. The Christmas Cat will eat you if you don’t have new clothes. The message is to promote hard work, or to value basic material possessions, or perhaps to be guarded around cats. The Krampus devils and the Kallikantsaroi goblins come out during the Christmas time to cause trouble. The message is to be wary of evil temptations even during the holy and festive times of the year.

So what are the messages of the Santa Lucia story? Certainly the old legend is a message about piety and fidelity to Jesus, all of the martyr stories carry that message – when trouble crowds around your door, stay true to your faith even unto death. But the martyr message has complications in our society today. Our government does not currently murder people for their religion, as happened to Lucia in Greece seventeen hundred years ago. Being founded on religious tolerance and freedom makes it unlikely that our government will ever go to that extreme, although the fresh round of Islamophobia does give one pause.

Perhaps the message of this old legend is not found in the oldest version of the story. It was over a thousand years after her death that Scandinavian cultures took hold of the story and made it their own. The story of a young girl dressed in white with lights in her hair holds some of the symbolic connections to Saint Lucia, but not much. Bringing food to the elders in the family has more to do with Swedish and Norwegian culture than anything going on in Greece in 300 AD when Lucia was killed. Emperor Constantine in Rome was about to descend on Greece. Constantine, you may recall, is the one who turned Christianity from a rebellious group of martyrs and saints into a state-sanctioned, colonizing power. Carrying cookies and coffee with candles in your hair has nothing to do with the original Lucia.

But perhaps the original story changed over the centuries because the society needed a different message. The story we celebrate of Santa Lucia is not the one about the martyred saint. We celebrate the story of the child with lights in her hair bringing food to people. The message shows us the importance of children and the honoring of elders in the family. It is a message also about bringing light at the darkest time of the year. We always need this solstice message of light returning. We’ve barely had winter yet here in Binghamton – a few cold days but not many. Yet we always need the story of light returning.

The legend of Santa Lucia is rife with tragic and gruesome details. But it serves our community as a story of family and community and the returning of the light because that’s the part we lift up and tell. We are meaning makers, we make it. We decide what values to carry forward and what the stories mean. So the cookies are cat’s eyes. The lights in her hair are the key feature of the story. It is all about family and community.

Consider how it works for the Hanukkah story. It was originally about a great military victory. The lighting of the lamp was about re-consecrating the temple, but the great part was the military victory. But over time, lighting the candles became the important thing – even if you did not know the story of the victory or why the lights were needed in the first place.

But even if you have no memories
of beloved elders chanting a guttural holy tongue
while holding the shamash aloft at dusk,
the menorah compels us all to consider
how centuries change stories,
how celebrations reflect as much as preserve,
and how we shape consecration of our own rituals.
We can all remember
that it takes only a candle
to light the way for each other
-Lori Rottenberg “The Shamash is the tall one”

We all need the light that shines out, the story that leads us higher, and the community of support and memory that keeps us whole. So that is the version of the story we tell. And here we are, most of us not Swedish yet we enact a beloved Scandinavian story; most of us not Jewish yet we light the Menorah and honor the tradition; most of us not Christian yet we speak of the advent of Jesus and of Love. We are Unitarian Universalists, gathered in diversity to seek peace and warmth and light in a world filled with danger and fear. We tell stories of victory and love despite the darkness that grows. Because those are the stories we need filling our world.

Welcome to the season of lights, may you find the stories you need to carry you through the darkness, and may you find the faith to see the beauty of the dark as well as the glory of the light.

In a world without end, May it be so.