Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 5, 2017
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
The poignant opening of this poem is remarkable this week. “Today,” he wrote from the 13th century, “like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.” Rumi was a Muslim from Persia – the geographical region known today as Iran. We in America and I am sure in many places around the globe, are very aware of the violent and extreme forms of Islam that are constantly in the news. Many Americans on both sides of the political divide are frightened of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and numerous other examples.
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.” In Islam there is great stock placed in learning, in the study of the Qur’an as well as in the study of the natural world. Does that feel familiar to you? There is comfort to be found in figuring things out, in learning.
But Rumi advises to forgo the usual remedy. “Take down the dulcimer. Let the beauty we love be what we do.” Make of this world some beauty, do something you love and let that love be your response to the fear and devastation, the slander and ill news. “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
This closing line is both a reference to Rumi’s Islamic prayer practice as well as an appeal to pluralism and tolerance among the religions. Rumi was a Sufi poet, scholar, and mystic. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and perhaps the aspect most familiar to Unitarian Universalists. If we use a passage from an Islamic source in our services it will likely be from Rumi, Kabir, Hafiz, or some other mystic Sufi poet.
It must be admitted however that Sufism is far from the central perspective of common practice among Muslims. Still, it is a doorway into understanding, a place to begin. And it there is a great need in America to begin to understand Islam. Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world and the fastest growing religion in the world today. Over two decades ago, a Newsweek article stated
No part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us than that complex of religion, culture, and geography known as Islam. (Meg Greenfield, Newsweek, March 26, 1993, p 116)
That assessment holds still today, over 20 years later.
This past Friday the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier invited the community and the news-media to join them in their regular Friday prayer service. Muslims pray five times a day, and I have attended those prayers a few times in the past. This invitation was to the main weekly event. Christians hold their services on Sunday mornings, Jews on Saturday, and Muslims have their primary weekly service on Friday. The service consisted of a sermon bookended by prayers, and it was clear that the final prayer was the feature.
The prayers are open, anyone is welcome to attend. After leaving my shoes near the entryway, I went up and sat in the back on the men’s side of the room. I wasn’t expected, or really even invited, to stand, bow, kneel, and pray along with the regular people. I simply witnessed and respectfully offered my own silent prayers.
As the men in the room sat on the ground listening to the Imam, there were a few young preschool boys making noise or looking around. Later, when most of the room was prostrate with their heads on the ground, one little boy was looking around with a big grin on this face. A few minutes later he was climbing around the Imam’s chair. Seeing that made me smile, and seeing the response of the community kept me smiling. No one scolded him or even commented on it. I heard that on the women’s side they experienced the same sort of thing; children were part of the event but not expected to mimic the adults by sitting quietly.
The prayers were spoken in Arabic, or the case of the call to worship it was sung in Arabic. Imam Anas Shaikh’s sermon began with a recitation from the Qur’an in Arabic. Then, throughout the sermon he spoke in English and Arabic. Whenever he quoted the Qur’an or a passage from the Hadith, Anas would saying first in Arabic and then in English. This is a distinctive feature on Islam. There is only one Qur’an and it is written in Arabic. There are no disputes about a mistranslation or mis-transcription or a lost version of this or that passage. There is only one version. Now, there are many English translations to be sure. I have five different English translations up here on the focal point. But Muslims learn the Qur’an in Arabic as well as their native language so every Muslim is taught the exact same Arabic as the beginning point. Whenever the Qur’an is used in worship or sturdy, the text is in Arabic or in both Arabic and English – or whatever other language is spoken.
For all the differences in the form and style of gathering, the content of the Imam Anas’ sermon was remarkably similar to the content of many liberal religious messages. He talked about how we can respond to hard times with resilience from the evidence of renewed unity. And he said that a significant task for all Muslims is to help others.
Imam Anas spoke directly to the Muslim Ban by order of the President’s Executive Order. He mentioned the outpouring of protest and support that followed as an example of renewed unity among Americans of goodwill. He encouraged his hearers to reach out the Jewish Community Center and Jewish people following the bomb threat our JCC and many other JCCs receive this past week. His sermon was about having hope and resilience in the face of difficulty, and about reaching out to help others. He grounded those two points in stories and teaching in the Qur’an.
I have made the claim before and I will offer it again now. Any religious or spiritual path, well-travelled, can lead you into compassion, truth, and service. And conversely, any path can be rationalized to support a culture of disharmony, selfishness, and violence. I occasionally hear the question, ‘Does Islam promote violence?’ There is nothing inherently violent about any religious path. It is in the way it is practiced. There are passages in Jewish and Christian scripture advocating for violence. Five years back there were Buddhist monks in Myanmar leading violent mobs against Muslims. Many religions are coopted for violent purposes.
Is there a violent side to Islam? Of course there is. But it is not a central or common aspect of the faith. It is the extreme and has been rightly condemned by many. The problem is not in the religion of Islam. The problem is in the politicization of Islam. It is the state using the religion as a tool to oppress people and incite hatred, nationalism, and violence. The trick is many Americans have bought into the idea that the religion of Islam is synonymous with the political extremists and terrorists causing trouble in the world.
ISIS is essentially a militant group of fundamentalist using Islam who have taken over key areas of Iraq and claimed themselves to be the Islamic State. They have recently pushed into eastern portions of Syria. Thus ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is why there are massive numbers of Syrian refugees – they are fleeing from ISIS. ISIS is unrecognized by other Muslim countries, they do not acknowledge its legitimacy. The United Nations has named ISIS as a terrorist group. ISIS is definitely a problem.
When I and other protest the Muslim Ban, we are not saying there is no threat. We are saying instead, this Ban is a poor response that will exacerbate the threat rather than alleviate it. I am not saying we should let any odd person in, I get it. I’m saying the vetting we already do is strong. This ban serves to keep these Syrian refugees in the path of harm as well as to create more opportunities for the extremists to recruit from the suffering population.
And part of what I protest is more than this moment, this particular executive order. I object to the negative prejudice against all Muslims as the enemy, as a backward and violent people. I protest the misrepresentation of a religion. The Muslims in our local community are largely wonderful people.
And there are numerous examples in history and in contemporary times of Islam having a positive impact on local communities, culture, and indeed civilization as a whole. If you think about it, four of the five Pillars of Islam which serve as the centering point of Muslim life are not beliefs; they are practices that help build community and personal discipline. The first is a doctrine, a declaration of faith in Allah with Muhammad as his messenger. The next four are practices prescribed to every believer: prayers five times each day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, Almsgiving to support the poor and needy, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
For all the ways Islam is markedly different from other religions, certainly it is different from Unitarian Universalism, there are also some significant similarities. It is valuable and useful to explore the differences, for that is usually where the unique beauty of different religions and beliefs will be found. But when there is rampant Islamophobia and the dissemination of misguided stereotypes and falsehoods, it becomes very important to consider the similarities.
One of the obvious similarities between Islam and a lot of Jewish and Christian thought is the recognition of the ‘inner light,’ the divine spark within every person. That is one of our most helpful commonalities as well. There is a lot we can do together across our differences when we can start by affirming that every person has an inherent worth. It is a central belief in Islam.
Another particular common value we Unitarian Universalists share with Islam is the honored place of scientific inquiry and an appreciation of the natural world. Muslims have a proud history of scientific inquiry and discovery. There is an unfortunate pattern in the Western world of ignoring the history and culture of places other than Europe. Islam gave us quite a share of astronomers, chemists, mathematicians, philosophers, and doctors.
Go read about the Cordoba community in An-Aldalus, an Islamic city in southern Spain during medieval times. Read about the Ahmad ibn Tulun hospital in Cairo founded in 872. Learn about the history of Algebra – an Arabic word which means “reunion of the broken parts.” Read up on
…a surgeon named Al-Zahrawi, [from the 900’s] often called the “father of surgery,” [who] wrote an illustrated encyclopedia that would ultimately be used as a guide to European surgeons for the next five hundred years. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-considine/overcoming-historical-amnesia_b_4135868.html
This was all before the Renaissance in Europe.
One of the stories we tell about our Unitarian history in Europe has Muslim antecedents to it that are often overlooked. In Hungary in the 1500’s John Sigismund became the first and only Unitarian king in history. His most famous act was to issue the Edict of Torda which is noteworthy as the first edict of religious tolerance in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. We lift up this story from our history proudly. Tolerance is one of our watchwords – indeed we often chide ourselves to do more than merely tolerate other religious beliefs and customs.
But the Edict of Torda did not drop out of nowhere. The historical context that made it possible was built over a generation and more. The Ottoman Empire was receding from that area but when the Muslims had ruled that part of Europe they did so with a notable policy of religious tolerance.
Indeed, history records that
when Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire first learned of the birth of John Sigismund, the son of the King of Hungary, he felt it be such an important event that he sent a personal representative to stand in a corner of Queen Isabella’s room to watch over her and the infant. (Jason Goodman, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, p 86)
It could be argued that this foundational portion of our Unitarian history would never have developed without it being first sheltered by the tolerant perspective of Islam.
Back on Friday when I listened to Imam Anas’ sermon, I heard him recite one of my favorite passages from the Qur’an.
O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware. (49:13)
This passage encourages Muslims, indeed all humanity, to learn about different people. It essentially says the reason we have differences is so that we can learn about those differences. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” And Lo! The noblest people are the ones best in conduct.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rebuilding the Dream
Rev. Douglas Taylor and Jo VonRue
January 22, 2017
Sermon Part I “The Dream Then” – Douglas
CD recording of “I Have A Dream” speech
I keep playing this same piece of audio year after year. I deviate occasionally; but most years, on the Sunday before or after the Dr. King holiday, I play the last 5 minutes of Dr. Kings 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s why. These words capture amazingly well the implications of my Universalist theology – the implications of where that kind of love ought to lead us.
King’s dream is an articulation of beloved community. That is our goal: the dream of unity and freedom, of community built across the differences of race and class, gender and sexual orientation, political ideology and religious belief. I play this piece of audio year after year because it serves as a reminder of where we are trying to go, of what we are trying to accomplish, of why we are in the struggle to make the world a better place.
Sermon Part II “The Dream Now” – Jo
Audible recording of Between the World And Me (8:36 to 10:46)
Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote his book Between the world and me as a collection of letters to his teenage son Somari. Coates names the structural persistence of racism as the central challenge for kids coming up today in the generation after Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and after the hope that Barak Obama instilled in many of us.
This book, this letter to his son describes the tragedy and truth of the black experience, how lives are impacted by the inherent racism and societally ingrained perspective held by those in power.
The dreamers in King’s speech were the people with brown and black skin, but the dream that Coates speaks of has nothing to do with people of color, he does not speak of the future in a dream like state, or with hope for tomorrow like King.
The dreamers Coates tells us are those who cast votes, form the social narrative, become policy makers, teach in the schools, stock the library and continue to have power and authority they do not even understand or comprehend.
In the meantime those who walk through life in black bodies not being able to separate intentions and actions from perception and judgment try to move mountains in the futile attempt to protect themselves and their families from certain violence and discrimination.
He never makes full peace with the dreamers but is able to place humanity upon them, a bigger gift than he or his community receive in exchange.
Sermon Part III “Rebuilding the Dream” – Douglas and Jo
So we have two versions of the Dream at play before us today. We have Dr. King’s vision of the American Dream for all people with freedom and equality. And we have Ta-Nehisi Coates’ critique of the tranquilization and anesthetization of American people, mostly white people, thinking the American Dream is about a mortgage and Memorial Day cook-outs, credit cards and nice lawns. Whenever I hear King talk about the Dream, I cheer. And when I hear Coates speak of it, I cringe.
Here is the trick. The Dream is all well and good – either one I suppose. And … what we really need is to wake up and stay awake. After these past few months and more poignantly just these past few days, it is clear to me whichever Dream shines in my eyes, I can benefit by waking up and staying awake.
So how does that work, what does it look like? Let me start with an example from the trip to Standing Rock Jo and I took back at the beginning of November.
When we arrived in North Dakota, we went to the city of Cannon Ball on the reservation which was just a few miles from the camps. We entered a gymnasium full of about 500 clergy. We all sat silently as the elders of the tribe spoke to us about what they have called us here to do. They have called us here specifically to be allys in the struggle, to try to help to reduce the violence of the police, and to show them that they are not alone in this battle.
We were told specifically that we were to be peaceful, prayerful, lawful, and nonviolent. They repeated this many times as they did not need us coming to their land and making things harder on their people by staging protests and getting arrested or otherwise angering the law enforcement.
So, after we are done hearing from the organizer about how the tribal elders have asked us to behave while at Standing Rock, three white people got up to make an announcement. The guy in camouflage pants invited people to join him in one corner to talk about doing a civil disobedience to push the meaning of ‘lawful.’ I will be honest, part of me wanted to join that circle – I figured part of my work was to show up and put my body in the way of the rubber bullets because that is one sensational way to demonstrate solidarity. But another part of me was listening to what the elders had asked of us.
When I walked by the edge of that ring of white people talking about civil disobedience a few minutes later I noted that one of the tribal elders – a relatively small, female elder – was holding forth in the middle. Her tone was clear to me, though I could not hear all the words she spoke. “We have invited you here to help in this work. Don’t do what we have not asked you to do.”
We were there to be allies. We were invited in to participate, not lead. We showed up to support them in the work, not to take over the work. I used to think my role was to be visible. I used to think that what I was doing was showing up in the community and with those on the margin, standing in a particular place to be seen. Now I understand that was just my ego. Now I understand better that my role is still to show up, and do what the leaders from the margin have asked of me.
Here is another example of how to wake up and stay awake. Jo and I took a class at Meadville Lombard two weekends back. The class, “Unleashing your Multicultural Ministry” focused on the institutional and systemic work, rather than the personal work of anti-racism and multiculturalism. Thankfully it was not a room full of people who already get it – we were a room of learners, and we struggled a bit.
During our class, we watched a few clips of a movie called “Dear White People” if you have not watched it, I highly recommend it. In the clip we watched a black female college student (the main character) react to her white male classmate’s racist, misogynistic behavior towards her. We were asked as a class to talk about how we might respond as a minister towards certain characters in the show. The group that was asked to respond to the main character responded to her in a way that was nothing more than the scolding of a young angry black woman.
I glanced at my two good friends, both the only students of color in the room and saw that they were also dismayed. So, when it was time to offer some feedback, I glanced at them first asking if they wanted to speak, but when they did not, I voiced my thoughts that perhaps we were not giving this young woman a chance to speak her truth. Why was it that we were scolding her and not the young man who verbally accosted her?
My role in that example was as a witness, a witness the work of an ally. I witnessed one person of color struggle with the situation. My interpretation was the person wanted to speak out but did not want to speak in anger. So the person of color didn’t comment. Then I saw Jo step in as an ally, naming out loud to potential for how the first student’s words could have been heard.
Sometimes the work is to listen and step back, as with the example from Standing Rock. And sometimes the work is to listen and step up, as with this example from the class. The discernment piece lands on relationships.
One key point I want to lift up in the example is how the crux of the situation may have been about an older person talking to a younger person, or a white person talking to a black person, or a male person talking to a female person. Yet, more likely it was all three in juxtaposition, a fusion of power dynamics, an intersection.
Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in an essay she wrote in 1989 about the intersection of race and sex which focused on the intersection of discrimination that black women are often faced with.
The concept of intersectionality is not an abstract notion but a description of the way multiple oppressions are experienced. Crenshaw uses the story of a black woman who sued her employer for discrimination based on the fact that she was a black woman. You see, the car company hired black people but only men and they worked in the shop, and it hired women, but only white women who worked in the office. So they claim that they hire both black people and women, but the intersection is that they do not hire black women4
We can now think of the idea of intersectionality in broader terms like People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more.
So as we are gearing up in this congregation to reimagine Sunday worship, and to reinvigorate Social Justice, we need to consider the ways in which we can intersect those things which we are passionate about. Yesterday those of you who participated in the women’s march in Binghamton carried our Standing on the Side of Love banner, our welcoming congregations banner, and a Black Lives Matter sign all of which remind us of the intersectionality of both feminism and the work we are doing here at UUCB.
Another way we will be doing this is by making the commitment to have the voice of a person of color in every Sunday worship. I would love for you to imagine with us how we might carry our intersectionality forward in other ways.
Hearing and feeling the magnitude of what we have just laid before you, you may be asking us “So now what?”
The way we live social justice into our heart, the way we move and act into that justice, the way we use our whiteness, our straightness, our gender, our able bodies to move forward into this messy world as partners and allys, the way we LIVE truth to power is by staying awake.
Staying awake means more than wearing a Black Live Matter button, or sporting a rainbow flag on your bumper sticker.
To stay awake means that we keep ourselves informed of all that are going on around us in this society especially in times of turmoil and conflict, specifically on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered such as the police brutality riots that have been happening all over our country.
Staying awake means speaking up against injustice when you see it, it means staging more protest marches, it means calling your law makers it means interrupting harassment, it is reaching out a hand of compassion, it is smiling at a stranger on the street, it is trying to understand a difference of opinion it is loving out loud.
We need to wake up and stay awake. King’s Dream still shines as a vision for us, but we cannot live in the Dream, we must be awake. When King spoke to the Unitarian Universalists (as the Ware Lecturer during our General Assembly) in the summer of 1966, three years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, the title of his talk was “Don’t Sleep through the Revolution.” Yes, we need the dream, but we need to be awake and to stay awake as we work toward fulfilling our dream of beloved community. Our work as Unitarian Universalists today is to not sleep through the revolution.
We know full well that the Dream will not just tumble into existence; we must make it become true. We must be willing to show up and do the work – sometimes stepping up and sometimes stepping back. And, we are experiencing a movement of resistance that has been underway for generations and at the same time it has begun fresh this weekend. Every voice is needed. Get involved. Pick any point of entry – they nearly all intersect eventually.
We Unitarian Universalists have a role to play in all this – not a role of leadership so much as one of partnership. Stay open to new relationships that arise in the community. Now is the time for us to wake up and pay extra attention, to offer extra care, to meet extra needs. And the Dream – Oh, the Dream – yes, the Dream is important; but to achieve it we cannot stay in it. We must instead wake up and help each other to stay awake.
In a world without end, may it be so.
A Misunderstanding of Fences
Rev Douglas Taylor
December 11, 2016
“Good fences make good neighbors” is an old saw comparable to other gems like “Haste makes waste” and “Fortune favors the bold.” In some ways “Good fences make good neighbors” continues to be an ‘old saw’ because Robert Frost said it in his poem Mending Wall https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44266, or as some people know it: ‘the “Good fences make good neighbors” poem.’ Frost’s critique of the phrase has assured its alleviation in our common discourse. Still, the misunderstanding raises a worthy question, ‘When are boundaries important to keep and when are they important to cross?’
I was at a multi-day minister’s conference a few years back, the topic was on leadership and authority. There were a few dozen of us participating, and when we came in to the room after our lunch break on the second day, the presenters had set up a game for us.
There was masking tape on the floor dividing the room into thirds. We were each assigned a section with most of us in one section, a smaller number in the middle section, and about five people in the last section. We were given only one rule – don’t cross the lines.
At first, knowing the course was about leadership and authority, we played along. After about ten minutes, we started crossing the lines just to see what would happen. When nothing obvious happened, most of us roamed the room. Some people pulled up the tape and used it to make art or create new boundaries. I started at the big end, but over the course of the activity I occupied every section of that room you can be assured. Eventually I sat down and started a rousing hymn sing.
Some of what we learned while processing the experience is that when left with no direction or aim, no leadership, people tend to accomplish a significant amount of nothing in particular. We also learned from our experience the truth of Frost’s opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
We Unitarian Universalists tend to be ‘boundary crossers.’ We are iconoclasts. Our favorite stories from our history are the ones about the rebels, the heretics, the trail blazers, and tradition breakers. We are a people who do not love a wall.
I have noticed that for several years our two Unitarian Universalist seminaries – Meadville Lombard in Chicago where our ministerial intern Jo Vonrue is studying and Starr King in Berkley where Satya Tabachnick who grew up in our congregation is studying – both have an emphasis in their program for ‘border crossing.’ We are explicitly teaching our new ministers to be ‘border crossers.’
My colleague Rod Richards says
We humans are the line-drawers. We are the border makers … the census-takers. We draw a line to separate this from that, so we can see clearly what each is. We create a border to define our place, so we can take care of what’s there.
Rod goes on to say, however, that compassion does not have such boundaries, “God has no borders.” “The lines we draw,” he says, “disappear when viewed with eyes of compassion.” (From Falling into the Sky; a meditation anthology edited by Abhi Hanamanchi and Abhmanyu Janamanchi, p 49)
A. Powell Davies, the Unitarian preacher serving in Washington, D.C. during the McCarthy Era, wrote “How strange and foolish are these walls that separate and divide us.” I have certainly echoed these sentiments over the years from this pulpit. I have lamented before that we dwell too often in the realm of divisions as a country, as a species, and that our work as Unitarian Universalists is to help cross the borders to meet the one we label as ‘other.’
With the election rhetoric from president-elect trump about building a wall along the US border with Mexico, I am reminded of the line in Frost’s poem:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
Drifting for a moment into the practical element of Donald Trump’s proposal and Robert Frost’s response: what, exactly, is the wall supposed to accomplish? Most people in the category of ‘undocumented immigrant’ came into our country using an airplane and a temporary visa. It is a very small number of people who will be affected the way that border wall is intended.
I suspect since we have not heard much about the proposed border wall in the past weeks that this particular ridiculous and impractical idea has run its course having already served its primary purpose which was simply to fuel the fires of fear among certain voters.
And I will take this segue to note that Robert Frost’s wall is not intended by the author to be only a literal wall. The metaphor of the wall as a tool of division is the greater lesson.
And it is here that I really hone in on the point I am making with my title. The misunderstanding about a wall is the idea that it provides security. There are certainly literal ways in which a wall can provide security, but the deeper truth is in the meaning of a wall, in the metaphor of a wall. In many ways the purpose of a wall is less about security and more about identity. The division of us vs them, the exclusion of the ‘other’ is too often what creates the ‘us.’
And this is the heart of why our Unitarian Universalist seminaries are teaching our new ministers to be ‘border crossers.’
I admit when I first learned about the focus of ‘border crossing,’ or ‘boundary crossing’ as it was called originally, I was concerned. I had spent my seminary training and the first handful of years as a minister navigating the impact on our ministry of inappropriate boundary crossing. My seminary training occurred in the shadow of the clergy sexual misconduct scandals. I learned the importance of ‘healthy boundaries.’ While I have never had a personal or direct connection to any such misconduct, the reality of it impacted the breadth of society. Not all boundaries are bad; there are useful walls that divide.
In the poem, Frost allows that this wall – the one he and his neighbor are rebuilding – is not needed; but other walls out there can be important and useful, such as where there are cows. And so, metaphorically Frost is saying, there are walls that are useful and walls that are there for no use at all. Useful dividing walls serve for when we want to make the lines clear between what is mine and what is yours, such as with your bank account or my body. The whole conversation of consent and rape culture recently is a response to a type of ‘boundary crossing’ that is harmful.
Tearing down a wall can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing depending on the boundary and why it is being crossed. In our game at that minister’s conference, we tore up the tape boundary without establishing first what the boundary was for or clarifying if it was a boundary in the service of justice or of injustice.
Crossing boundaries is good and just when we are partnering with the oppressed, when we are meeting the ‘other’ across our differences, when we challenging a status quo that is unjust. Crossing boundaries is bad when we are abusing our power or other people, when we are taking advantage of the trust that has been given to us, when we see every boundary as just a challenge rather than as a guide to navigate the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.
Boundaries are a tool, how we use them is the question. Robert Frost’s poem is at first glance a poem in favor of getting rid of walls. But when we look closer we see that it is like most of Frost’s better poems – an ambiguous mix. The poem takes place while the narrator and the neighbor are together rebuilding a wall. The narrator initiated the activity. He says the “spring mending-time’ had come.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
The poem on its own does not resolve the apparent contradiction of wall-building and wall- destroying. It highlights it, as I am doing. I read one commentary (by David Rankin) that Frost’s poetry was not clear hope and optimism, the closest he got was ‘yes, maybe.’ The Mending Wall does not answer the question about if we should build walls of tear them down. Instead the poem raises the deeper question, what is the purpose of the wall? What does it make of my identity, your integrity, our relationship?
When Jesus exhorted his followers “love your neighbor as yourself,” it was less about tearing down the division between Jews and Samaritans, and more about finding one’s integrity and compassion given the divisive social structures of the day.
“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robber.” Priests refused to help the man, passing on the other side of the road instead of stopping to help; until finally, a Samaritan came by. “When he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” (Luke 10)
The parable of the Good Samaritan recognizes that humanity must find a way to deal with the divisive instinct within us. The deeper question is not if the wall should be held or torn down. The deeper question is how can you live with integrity given the reality of the walls around us. That is the discernment question to know how to respond to our walls, which to maintain and mend, which to challenge and tear down.
And perhaps there is a hint of this in Frost’s poem as well. The narrator and the neighbor came together in common cause – the mending of a wall was perhaps just the excuse to share work together as neighbors. Let your compassion lead you to know your response. Let your integrity lead you to your compassion.
Perhaps good fences make good neighbors, but I doubt it. Remember the invitation from the second reading, Labyrinth by Leslie Takahashi Morris:
Walk the maze within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves. This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
I wonder if, instead, it is good neighbors who can come together with compassion and mend a good fence – allowing each person in the relationship to have their integrity. And when it is needed, good neighbors can also tear down division that harm so a bridge may be built instead.
In a world without end
May it be so
Integrity of Conscience
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 13, 2016
I have been thinking about all of you this past week. I have been praying and reading and listening all week as we went into this election on Tuesday with tension and division; and as we have come out the other side with a wide mix of emotions and opinions. I have been thinking about all of you. I have been thinking about my questions “What does the world need? What does our country need? What do you need in this moment of history?” I have slowly worked the questions inside out so I am now asking “what is needed of me in this moment of history?”
I have heard many people speak of their feelings of despair or anger or heartbreak. On Wednesday evening over 50 people attended the prayer vigil here in our sanctuary. I moved through that Wednesday as if I had lead weights on my brain. I wanted to take the day off, to curl up and not deal with life for a little while. And yet my conscience spurred me to act anyway.
My conscience spurs me still to speak out and to offer comfort and encouragement. Our faith is meant for times such as these – we are here to nourish each soul, to help heal the world, to bind up the broken, protect freedom, and cast a vision of Beloved Community for the world. Our faith is meant for times such as these.
And to be clear, my difficulty this week is not about Republicans. I have a colleague who serves two small, rural UU congregations; one is devastated by the election results, the other, overjoyed. I carry that colleague in my heart this morning. So don’t assume there are no Republicans among us or no people who voted for Trump in our pews.
It is true, however, that Unitarian Universalism has become a less and less welcoming home for political conservatives; and part of that is a problem in Unitarian Universalism and part of that is a change is conservative politics. Republicans used to be the party of state’s rights and fiscal responsibility. They now seem to be the party of denying rights to marginalized people, which is an odd direction for an American political party. I hope this election cycle serves as a wakeup call and a turning point not just for the Republican party but for our whole political system.
This election cycle has been extreme and rancorous. Many have commented on how this cycle has been more divisive and more personal for the majority of voting Americans. The call to come together again, as happens every four to eight years after election day, is increasingly difficult to pull off. Our current president and the president-elect have called for unity, for healing. And perhaps if words did not matter, it might be easier to do that – so many difficult things have been said in carelessness or in anger.
And now people have taken to the streets in protest. There have been post-election protests before; there have been cries of “not-my-president” before. Many conservatives protested the Obama 2008 election and many liberals protested the Bush 2000 election. In both cases, there were people who steadfastly refused to concede, refused to accept the results. In a way, post-election protests have become part of the American routine.
But there is something new in this election experience; we have ratcheted things up several steps. When people protested our current president Barack Obama, they protested that he was going to take away our guns, that he was secretly a Muslim, that he wasn’t really born in America, and that he was planning to destroy our country as part of the Weather Underground. All of these claims were unfounded conspiracy theories and over the past 8 years have all proven incorrect.
One the other hand, as my colleague Rev. Heather Janules has pointed out, when people protest our current president-elect Donald Trump, they protest that he has said he plans to ban Muslims from entering the United States, that he has described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, that he has encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies and against Hillary Clinton herself, that he degrades women frequently and is heard in a recording to brag about sexually assaulting women, and that he has pending lawsuits for fraud. Each claim is a credible complaint, founded on Donald Trump’s own words and statements. These are not conspiracy theories. (I thank Rev. Heather Janules for her work in compiling these footnoted sources.)
I cannot pretend there is an equivalency between the 2008 post-election Obama protests and those occurring this past week against a Trump presidency. I cannot say ‘we’ve seen all this before and we will be ok’ when a portion of the protest is rooted in the response to threats of violence against people on the margin (or people re-marginalized).
I have seen the news stories and the social media posts this past week about Muslims being threatened, children with Hispanic last names being bullied, women being grabbed at gas stations, people of color being harassed verbally and physically. The thread across these disparate stories is about white men feeling entitled by the election of Donald Trump to act out their racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic feelings.
I understand that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. Many people voted for Obama twice and have now voted for Trump. They did not vote in approval of the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia – they voted as anti-establishment, interested more in economics rather than identity issues, wanting something deeply different. And yet that is how systemic hate happens. Hate has won a victory in our country. Hate has begun a new chapter in the history of our country.
And so I say again, our faith is meant for times such as these. So I say proudly that I am standing on the side of love. And while I long to ring out the slogan that ‘Love is stronger than hate,’ and ‘love always wins;’ I feel a twinge of challenge at that. I am too much of a realist to simply say ‘peace, peace,’ where there is no peace. Sometimes love does not win. Last week hate won a victory in our country. Love does not always win; at least not on the day to day level. Yes the long arc bends toward justice, but until then love does not always win.
Sometimes the hard thing to do is to declare justice as the central identity of our nation despite the evidence; to stand on the side of love not when it wins but even when love loses. Our faith is meant for times such as these.
Gandhi has written:
A principle is a principle, and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to life in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate, and hard.
Even in bitter defeat, I am committed to love.
Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us into a difficult place. We are called to reach out across even these acrimonious differences, to resist the urge to demonize those who have been political adversaries, to treat all people with respect, to do our part to heal the wounds of our day and bring more peace.
And we are also called to challenge hate. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us to take the side of the poor, the marginalized, the disempowered, and those treated with injustice and cruelty. We are called to get in the way of systemic injustice, to stand up against tyranny, to agitate the establishment for change so that all people can heal from the wounds of our days and we can all experience more peace.
The way forward from this election season is a paradoxical path that is the hallmark of our faith. We must act with both open-handed reconciliation as well as steadfastly dissent. Gentle and resolute – I will not harm you, but neither will I stand by if you harm or threaten to harm others.
When you are ready, when you are finished the grieving or gloating, the anger or despair or outrage your broken heart demands of you – when you are ready, this is what I will invite you into: to share in the work of rebuilding our country through both open-handed reconciliation and steadfast dissent.
First, here is what I mean by reconciling. We value every person; it is the first thing we say as Unitarian Universalists. We say every person without exception has inherent worth and dignity. Every person is loved by God, every person is included in the family, every person is welcome. As such we shall move into the weeks and months ahead offering respect to the people who have been political adversaries.
We will give people the benefit of the doubt. We will not assume that how someone voted means they are racist or stupid or that they have no common ground with our UU values. Instead, we will give people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there is more to their story.
I have already heard some of my friends say anyone who voted for Trump is a racist or anyone who voted for Clinton is willfully blinded by the establishment lies. I say maybe, maybe not. Name calling and demonizing will only keep up fractured. I am not ready to write off whole categories of people like that. Let’s have a conversation instead. Let’s see what common ground we can find before jumping to conclusions.
I read an article yesterday by a Jesuit named James Martin advocating for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Martin writes,
Many of our brothers and sisters are frightened by the election of someone who said, both in public and in private, hateful comments. But the only path to reconciliation, as Jesus shows us, is meeting someone who seems like your enemy with charity.
We need to learn to listen past our assumptions of others. Isn’t that one of our great values as Unitarian Universalists? How significant is the bubble you live in? How often is your perspective positively challenged?
American media and internet media in particular is no longer broadcasting – it is narrowcasting. We are often living in a bubble contrived of news that keeps each of us shielded from other perspectives and opinions. We have to actively seek out alternative news and media. Not that this is new, but it has gotten harder especially in this election cycle. So seek out the perspective of a political adversary. Or going forward, listen for the bridge builders, listen for how we can better understand others.
Now the companion stance to this work of reconciliation is a steadfast dissent. They go together, one hand open and one hand closed. James Martin says in the same article a quoted a minute ago,
Now that the election is over, Mr. Trump’s policies are a legitimate target for critique by the church. Before an election such a harsh critique would have been seen as “endorsing,” which the church should not do. Now, however, as has always been the case in the political sphere, the church and its members, may offer legitimate critique about political leaders. http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/pro-unity-and-pro-voice
So we will speak up for the poor, for the marginalized and threatened. We can be open-handed and generous in striving to reconcile – and at the same time we can say acts of violence against minorities and immigrants and women and indeed any person will not be tolerated. And we will name hate crimes and racism as such without reducing it to name-calling and demonizing.
I will wear my Black Lives Matter button in public. I will show up at Standing Rock, ND. I will encourage attendance at the Million Woman March at DC in January. If the ban of Muslims comes, I will stand in opposition. And if Muslims are ever required to register then I will talk to my friends at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier about my plan to register as a Muslim. Solidarity and support will become my watchwords for American Indians, for LGBT people, for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for anyone threatened by the hate which has infiltrated the conservative politics of our national family.
Remembering what Dr. King said
What we need to realize it that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
I will strive for reconciliation. I will speak with compassion and civility to those who were on the other side of our political divide. I ask you all here to join me in this effort to understand, to listen, to give the benefit of the doubt. I say this knowing it is not an easy thing to ask of some of you at this moment. When you are ready, I hope you will join me. But love without power is anemic. Therefore we will be not only compassionate we will also be firmly against injustice.
I have considerable confidence that many of you are now ready to join me in the second part – the pledge of solidarity with all who feel threatened by the hate-filled responses that are occurring. I gently suggest you should not do so lightly, perhaps wait until you can do so with compassion and civility for all the people – those you would protect and those you would oppose. For power without love is reckless at best. What our world needs is not people of defiance, but people of faith. And our Unitarian Universalist faith is meant for times such as these.
There is a movement that has arisen to have allies wear a safety pin. A Safety pin on my shirt is meant to be a signal to those who feel targeted: “You Are Safe with Me.” It is a signal that I will serve to protect, I will support you, you are not alone.
Our Rainbow Alliance is has a bunch of safety pins to share. They are also planning to bring a professional in to offer training in the art of de-escalation. Wearing the safety pin is not meant merely as a symbolic gesture of solidarity. It is meant as a statement of tangible support. There is a real potential for risk in this – do not wear it lightly. Wear it as both love and power, as both reconciliation and dissent.
It is my hope that our congregation can be a safe space for people. But more than that, I will strive to make it a brave space. I will do what I can for all people who come here to recognize that they can take a risk, they can step forward, they can answer the call of love, to live in the world with an open-handed gesture of reconciliation and with a steely resolve of dissent.
Where will you be in all of this? What do you need? And what is needed of you? It comes down to the integrity of your conscience. What does your conscience call you to do at this moment in history? What will an act of integrity be for you? And don’t assume yours will look like mine or anyone else’s here.
As for me, when hate appears, I also will appear. I may not change the outcome of a situation. I may not be effective or heroic. I may simply end up on the losing side, but I will be there with compassion and civility, determination and resolve. I will be there with you. I will be there with love. That is where my faith calls me to be.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Broken and Blessed
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 16, 2016
Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8:22) Is there no place of healing, no healer to call for, no tincture or ointment that can be used to salve the wounds? Is there no balm in Gilead? The Prophet Jeremiah asks this question from the edge of despair. The Jewish people were in the middle of the Babylonian Exile. This is the predominant use of the phrase Balm in Gilead from scripture – a question. The people were suffering. Jeremiah says we were told there was a balm but now we are not sure, now we wonder if it could be gone or if it were ever there at all. Perhaps there is no hope left for the people. The Prophet Jeremiah saw what was going wrong for the people and he lamented. He cried out. Is there no hope? Is there no balm?
My colleague Meg Barnhouse has a photograph in [her] online art collection titled “Broken Buddha.” It shows the lap of a painted statue. One graceful hand has broken off and is resting on the sole of an upturned foot. Barnhouse says she is drawn to the image, captivated by the possible meaning:
The enlightened one as imperfect, cracked, and chipped. …
“The enlightened one is still whole,” one of the comments under the photo reads. Someone was made nervous by the Buddha’s broken hand. [Barnhouse writes,] The one who wrote that comment wants it to be true but he doesn’t know. Maybe you can be enlightened and broken too http://www.uuworld.org/articles/broken-buddha
Jewish mysticism has a concept called Tikkun Olam. It is a Kabbalist concept that explains how God’s Love is broken and scattered throughout creation, and that our job as humanity is to gather up the broken pieces and make the world more whole.
Again and again, the religions of the world wrestle with something we all have noticed. Some religions approach the questions with more hope or compassion than others. Essentially, though, all religions recognize that there is much and more that is wrong with the world and with our lives. Whether we speak of tragedies large or small, personal or global, a few things hold true for it all. There is suffering and loss, frustration and heartbreak. We feel in some way broken.
And one of the difficulties is that this suffering and hardship and brokenness can break us in an additional way as well. It can break our resolve, our commitment to keep trying. The frustration of ineffective action or hopelessness can break us. Our suffering can create a wall around us that blocks us from seeing the possibility of healing. It becomes a double blow. Our loss and our suffering can blind us. And we are left at times wondering ‘is there no balm in Gilead?’ Will we never be relieved of our losses, must we carry them always?
Henri Nouwen proposed a path of openness and vulnerability to help us see our way through the wounding days. A few decades back, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer. It quickly became a standard for pastoral theology and it certainly had a powerful impact on my ministerial and personal development. The premise of the title is that “in our own brokenness we can become a source of life for others.”
The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture. Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world. He said we have grown fragmented and rootless, a generation of people who are isolated and lonely and longing for something we cannot articulate. Nouwen further blamed the society itself saying we are driven apart by individualistic and materialistic forces in the culture. Healing comes, he said, from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all your wounds and brokenness, and inviting others in.
Suffering is solitary work. Each of us experiences suffering. Each person’s heartache and pain is unique to that person and is experienced inwardly. This is the Anna Karenina Principle, so named after the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yes, we all suffer, but each person’s heartache, each person’s pain is unique. You pain is unique, singular, and towering in significance to you alone. I spent the bulk of my adolescence and young adulthood absorbed by my own suffering.
Howard Thurman, reflecting on this, writes: “Suffering tends to isolate the individual, to create a wall… It makes his spirit miserable in the literal sense of that word. Initially, it stops all outward flow of life and makes a virtue of the necessity for turning inward.” (Disciplines of the Spirit p75) But later he adds: “Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made in any other way.” (Ibid p 76) Initially it isolates you and creates a wall; you all have felt that, yes? Then it offers an opening; have you ever felt that? What is the nature of that shift from isolation to opening? How does the balm of Gilead work, what is it exactly? How do we go from dislocation, in Nouwen’s words, to hospitality?
As the reading suggest, the shift from isolation to opening is akin to miraculous. So “don’t give up before the miracle occurs.” A wise colleague, James Ford has a book titled “If you are lucky, your heart will break.” Our hearts break because we care. The cost of compassion and love is heavy and we will carry it with us everywhere we go. But there is a significant difference between a heart that is simply broken and a heart that is broken open.
Our brokenness – my brokenness – is a source of power and beauty, it is the crack through which the water spills out onto the flowers. It is the crack through which compassion and understanding can flow. It can cause me suffering only when I work to hide my flaws or be ashamed of them, when I allow myself to be limited by my failures. What matters is not my unique brokenness but my response to it.
A colleague, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, writes about one way to respond to brokenness. She describes a meal she and her wife were having with her colleague Dan and his husband.
Rev. Dan Kane was cooking, I was washing, and what happened next was definitely my fault, although he says “we” broke it. Drying on the counter was a hand-painted platter that Dan and Darin had brought home from Italy, a large, expensive piece of pottery with significant sentimental value. And “we”—that is, I—somehow unsettled it and it dropped like a little bomb onto their kitchen floor, shattering into shards and dust with a c-r-a-s-h. I couldn’t believe it.
Dan and Darin tried to reassure me, saying not to worry, but I was reeling; I felt horrible. Without missing a beat, my wife, my hero, opened her computer, Googled the artist, found their shop online, ordered a duplicate replacement, and announced that this one would have different sentimental value. All better.
Fast forward six months. A package arrives from Dan and Darin. What is it? No, not an Italian platter…well, not exactly. It’s a reincarnation. It’s a mirror, set into a mosaic of the broken pottery. It’s one of a set; they sent one to us, and kept one for themselves.
Dan wrote, quoting Terry Tempest Williams’s latest book, Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World, “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. I believe in the beauty of all things broken.” (from “Quest” newsletter, February 2011)
It is not our brokenness that is the important piece, but our response from within the brokenness. It is our response that defines us. My colleague Harvie broke a beautiful platter. She feared it would break something in her friendship as well. But rather than allow that to occur, her friends responded with grace: “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.” We all have broken places in our lives. We all have at times caused the break. We all have lost or failed or experienced heartbreak. All this is par for the course. The part that defines us, the part where the blessing enters, is in how we respond.
Let me slip into some theology for a moment. I was reading a book this past week written from the perspective of man with Autism. [The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon] At one point the character was reflecting on the way some religious people talked to him about the role God played in his disability. The character was told that a disability or accident is God’s way of giving people a chance to show their faith and grow in character. Unfortunately that form of bad theology is not limited to novels, it happens in real life too.
Some religious people insist that an all-powerful and all-knowing God must have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering. But that doesn’t make any sense to me. It never has. God doesn’t cause illness or accidents. God doesn’t cause hurricanes or cancer or abuse. God doesn’t make us stumble, for the sake of a lesson or, worse, for someone else’s lesson.
The brokenness in your life is not God’s fault any more than it is your fault. And, in the same way that your response to the situation is the defining aspect of your character, that is where God will be in the progressive theistic understanding of liberal religion. God does not make our lives harder just so we can grow spiritually. But God is there supporting our response so that we can grow spiritually even from the hard experiences of brokenness in our lives.
The shift from a heart that is broken to a heart that is broken open, from isolation to hospitality, from suffering that creates a wall and suffering that creates an opening, is a shift I have been trying to articulate for decades. What is the secret to resilience? If there is a balm in Gilead, what is it and how can I be assured of finding it?
The answer is about connectedness. The answer is there in Theo Fleury’s 4 steps to not giving up before the miracle. In the reading (from Kristy Campbell), Fleury starts with the hard inner work of deciding to reach out, (and then the holy spirit revives my soul again …) And then the reaching out is the answer. Connect Fleury says. Connect with God or nature or your fellow human beings – friends, family, strangers, anyone … connect.
I’ll close with a piece of Terry Tempest Williams memoir that illustrates this. I quoted Williams earlier in the broken platter story saying “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. I believe in the beauty of all things broken.” Williams writes in her memoir about growing up with many of her relative having cancer. In particular, her mother is actively dying of the ovarian cancer, and Williams describes how she gets through the loss and the suffering of a day, saying:
I feel calm having just returns from a brisk walk along the base of the foothills. The balm of fresh air; Great Salt Lake glistening on the horizon. The valley is in sharp focus, crystal clear. I am reminded that what I adore, admire, and draw from Mother is inherent in the Earth. My mother’s spirit can be recalled simply by placing my hands on the black humus of mountains or the lean sands of desert. Her love, her warmth, and her breath, even her arms around me – are the waves, the wind, sunlight, and water.
She is resting. The nurse came and gave her a shot of Demerol. All Mother said today is how much she wants to sleep, “to not think or feel, just sleep.”
I never imagined we would walk to the place where what we hoped for was death. Sleep. It’s the same thing.
I read Mother a poem this afternoon by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“Read it again,” [mother] said. “Slowly.”
(from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, p214-15)
So yes, there is a balm. The light breaks through in a moment, the hand of a friend brushes against your own, a poem cuts through the fog, God’s love surrounds you with familiar warmth, a breath of grace falls upon your aching eyes, and in a moment you find a strengthening connection. There is a shift from isolation to openness, from a wall to a widening space, from death to life, Gilead’s balm is found – and for a time we rest in the grace of the world, and are free.
In a world without end,
may it be so.