Standing in the Doorway
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Normal. Part of the trouble is the things considered normal. Arundhati Roy, in that excellent piece we heard as our reading, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca says we don’t want to go back to normal. She says this pandemic is a portal through which we can move – not back to normal – but forward into a new way of being. This got me thinking, if normal is not what we want, what do we want instead?
Later, at the end of the month, I will offer a companion sermon “Rowing Toward Home” on the topic of how this pandemic will leave a lasting impact on how we Unitarian Universalists worship and gather in community. For today, I focus on how this impacts our nation. Today let us consider this pandemic portal and where it might lead for us as citizens of our country: back to normal or on toward something new.
Author and activist, Sonya Renee Taylor has recently said:
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” (Note: I misattributed this to Brené Brown.)
What Sonya Taylor is saying is much the same Arundhati Roy was talking about in her article. Roy described the many ways in which the pandemic and the Indian government’s response to the pandemic have revealed glaring inequalities and the tragic consequences of prejudices.
At the time she wrote her piece, shortly into the month of April, Roy sited that “The number of [CoVid-19] cases worldwide … crept over a million. More than 50,000 people have died already.” Today, five weeks later, those numbers are still climbing globally. We’ve gone from 1 million to 4 million confirmed cases worldwide in those five weeks; from more than 50,000 dead to more than 275,000 dead worldwide. Roy, as I’ve said, was writing about her own country of India, but we in the United States, are superlative – as always. We have 1.3 million of those 4 million cases right here in our country. And we’ve had nearly 80,000 deaths so far. This is hitting us hard. And we are not done.
And that is just the virus. This is a pandemic crisis as well as a political crisis and an economic crisis and healthcare crisis. Arundhati Roy talked about how the caste system in India has amplified the pandemic problem. In our country we have a similar impact – poor people and minorities are disproportionately hit harder by this pandemic because of the way our society is structured and the way our government has responded.
If this pandemic is to become the portal we need it to be, we must approach this with an active hope toward the world we long to create. Right now may be a pivotal moment of what some are calling the great turning. In the environmental movement, people talk of the Great Turning. https://livingthegreatturning.com/the-great-turning/ Joanna Macy’s elegant articulation about choosing a middle way between blindly ignoring and denying the problem versus getting stuck in feelings of despair and powerlessness. That middle way is to see the world at a turning. It calls us into active hope. I see this pandemic bringing these similar responses from people around me: active denial, active despair, and active hope.
The Great Turning is not something that might happen to us, it is a choice we can make together about how we will respond. For Johanna Macy the climate crisis it is not about saving the planet or saving humanity. The active hope found in the Great Turning is not about promises of a particular outcome. It is instead about facing the reality we are in now and responding in our best way.
We can’t avoid the CoVid-19 crisis – it’s already here. We are living in it. (And Macy will tell you the same thing for Climate Crisis – we’re already in it) The big question is not how we can avoid a disruption, but how we will navigate it. How can we steer our way as it crashes around us?
The pandemic crisis reveals these other crises. As a country we are in the balance of either drifting politically into full oligarchy with shades of fascism and plutocracy or perhaps a recommitment to a democratic republic with greater ecological, economical, and social balance. Something will come from all this. We should take part in determining what. Something different will rise in our society from this pandemic.
With the healthcare atrocities continuing to unfold around us in the form of shortages and profiteering, we can perhaps push more strongly now for a single-payer solution, to pull for-profit healthcare from the equation if possible. With the record-level unemployment we are experiencing even as the Dow Jones rebounds, we can perhaps push the conversation of minimum income or at least a real living wage level for the minimum wage. I’m not suggesting anything all that radical, just things that are civil and, dare I suggest, functional for a healthy society.
The goal is to not be reactionary. I’m not suggesting we react in panic to swing a pendulum as far to the other side as possible. No. Our goal is instead to be intentional. It is to view what is happening through the lens of our values and connections. And then to lift up what we know and point toward the future we want to create together.
Look toward the systemic changes needed. We will get to the other side of this pandemic. Will we drag our old baggage along? Or perhaps, in looking at the things we’ve done to get through this, we can choose to continue some of them on the other side of this; such as caring about the vulnerable among us, such as valuing health workers and teachers more, such as prizing flexibility in a workforce rather than blind obedience. Perhaps the tools that have seen us through this are the tools we want more permanently in place as we emerge.
In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown says “Change is constant.” We are in the midst of obvious change. Let’s lean into it rather than fight for a return to ‘normal!’ Brown offers an outline in the book, strategies for navigating change. Her guiding principle is to recognize that change is constant. She also says “Never a failure, always a lesson,” “Move at the speed of trust,” and “What you pay attention to grows.” Her list is a little longer than that, but I just want you get a flavor for her elements of emergent strategy. We can be strategic through the change, noticing what emerges and how we can nurture the parts we most want.
Adrienne Maree Brown talks about change as not only constant but also fractal and iterative, interdependent and intentional. The thrust of her message and the point I am attempting to raise here is this: We have a part to play in how this all unfolds. Something is emerging in this time of difficulty and we can nurture it along in our own personal lives, in our circles and communities, and we can call for it as our nation winds its way through this trouble.
Arundhati Roy said:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
She reminded us that we don’t have to trip along and come gasping out of this pandemic crying out for a return to income inequality, a return to hyper-polarized politics, a return to prejudice and hate, a return to fetishizing our police officers while devaluing our teachers, or a return to the sick, sick way we have commodified health. We don’t need to simply stand in the doorway wondering what might come next. We can, instead, choose to rise up and walk through this portal with a plan. We can, instead, choose to cross this tragic threshold with an eye toward the world we intend to create. We can, together, make of this pandemic a portal toward the more just and fair society that is emerging among us even now.
In a world without end
May it be so
Earth Teach Me
Rev. Douglas Taylor
It is a blessing to still go out for a walk in these days of self-quarantine. Nature continues to be a source of renewal and grace for me. Have you been outside lately? In the past, before the time of self-quarantine, I would pull my car out of the garage without even stepping outside. I’d drive off to some parking lot somewhere and walk across the pavement until I entered a building. That was my normal day, my normal limited daily experience of being outdoors. Of course, I would make time for a walk, but not often enough. I would make some time to be in the yard, but not often enough.
Now, every time I go outside, which is no longer a daily event, I prepare myself. It’s different. I have slowed down. I am more intentional. I notice more. There is a dogwood tree at my front steps that is in bloom right now. I have, in the past told a story about that tree and how cheated I’ve felt to have the tree move from blossom to bloom and then drop all its flowers in a ridiculously short amount of time. I’ve been watching the tree every day now. I notice how gracefully it is moving from blossom into bloom. I’ve slowed down. I notice more. Has this pandemic slowed you down?
In the article we had for our reading, https://tinybuddha.com/blog/4-lessons-from-the-forest-dealing-difficult-times/, the author uncovered 4 lessons offered by the old forest. The first one is to slow down. This pandemic has forced me to slow down. Or, another way to think of it: In heeding the wisdom of the old forest’s lesson, I am better equipped to thrive in this pandemic. The earth teaches me to slow down.
The second lesson the author found, that old forests offer for how a community can thrive, is to have a strong foundation (roots hold me close). What are the roots you rely on in this time? Some of the obvious foundations I’ll tell you about are things I’ve been talking about for a while: The foundation of sharing and supporting each other, the power of compassion. For a moment, though, let me share two key foundations: hope and truth.
A month ago, the internet got really silly with a story about how dolphins had returned to the canals of Venice Italy. It made many people so hopeful. With people no longer clogging the water ways, the canals had the ability to rebound, to become clean and clear. And this story popped up that dolphins were seen swimming in the canals. It was quickly proven false; but for a moment the internet got very gleeful with this story.
Truth is so very important at a time like this. The pandemic virus is not going to magically disappear if we hope hard enough. And protesting with assault rifles and confederate flags will not change the virus one bit. The only thing this virus responds to is reality. But, keep truth at your foundation and hope can arise from within that. There are no dolphins in the canals of Venice; but the canals are cleaner and clearer, which is a hopeful sign about the Earth’s capacity to heal. It is a true echo of what could happen for you as well. Is your life growing clearer now that the canals of your days are less clogged.
The third lesson from the article is that disturbance is not bad. The reading talks about lightening killing a tree which allows an opening for new trees to grow. I will not be so crass as to suggest a direct analogy, but let me offer something else. Part of why we so love nature is the pastoral healing grace we find there. The old forest is tranquil, steady, strong. And, at certain times and in certain ways, nature can offer a prophetic warning. Lightening does strike. Illnesses do happen. Predators kill and eat prey. These things are part of nature, they are part of life. There is loss and suffering and death. What makes these things tragic is when they are avoidable, twisted to serve selfish goals rather than the communal balance.
Disturbance is not bad, but a disturbance can reveal a grave imbalance which is bad. Fires, for example are a regular destructive occurrence and a natural part of the life of a healthy forest. When humans suppress fires, it creates an imbalance such that when a fire does eventually happen it is overwhelmingly devastating.
Illness is a disturbance. But because we are so very out of balance with nature as a society, we are being overwhelmed. This will be devastating. The pastoral grace of nature is one part of what Earth teaches me. The harsh destruction – particularly when experienced out of balance – is a harder lesson. Normally, disturbance is not bad, it is simply part of the dynamic reality of nature. We ignore the prophetic warnings of nature to our folly. Does this ring true for you? Do you see some imbalances revealed by this pandemic? Are there imbalances in your own life that you can work on now while work toward correcting the larger societal ones together over time?
The last lesson from the article is ‘if you can’t get over it, grow around it.’ Another way to say this might be ‘work with what you’ve got,’ or ‘grow where you are planted.’ What it also hints at, however, is the hopeful message that persistence will be rewarded. The roots will eat away at the boulder. The people will rise to create a better society. The obstacle will not last. Yes, the pandemic is awful. Yes, it is twisted into an atrocity by the obstacles created by out immoral and unbalanced national situation. But the earth teaches us that the slow and grounded community will persevere through the upheaval and difficulty. If you can’t get over it, grow around it.
Listen to the wisdom of the forest. There are lessons for how to thrive as a community revealed to those willing to look. Slow down. The way through this difficult time is not found in rushing around or demanding a speedy return to normal. We will never return to ‘normal’ from this. Slow down. Settle into your foundations. Seek your grounding, your roots. I suggest the nuanced dance between truth and hope, but you find yours, that’s what you need. This is a disturbance and it will change us. Something new can grow when we are ready to allow it. And the obstacle will not last, we will persevere and together build the beloved forest of faith that will always be our home.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Homily “Easter Inside” by Rev. Douglas Taylor
In the bible, each of the four gospels offers a version of what happened on that morning. Mark’s Gospel ends most simply and mysteriously with the ‘empty tomb.’ Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb on the third day to anoint Jesus’ body. They discovered the stone had been moved already and an angel sat waiting for them, but no Jesus. The angel tells the women that Jesus is not here, that he has been raised. All of this is also reported (with various additions and adjustments) in the other three gospel narratives. The remarkable part of Mark’s version is that this is all he gives us: an empty tomb. Mark does not go on to show the risen Jesus in any way. We are left wondering … what happened to Jesus? Where is he? In Matthew, Luke, and John we are shown: Oh, there he is. But in Mark, it is left as just an empty tomb. It’s a new day. He could be anywhere!
As Rev. Root warned us in the reading (an excerpt from here: https://kara-root.blogspot.com/2012/04/unthinkable-alternative-aka-resurrected.html), “A Risen Lord is dangerous. Unpredictable. A Resurrected God means Jesus Christ could meet us anywhere. In anyone. At any time.” It is much the same message as in the story about the dwindling abbey, in which the rabbi says, “The Messiah is among you.” God could be anywhere, anyone.
And most dramatically, because of all that, the empty tomb signals that everything has changed. Easter is about transformation. It’s a new day. The empty tomb did not call the disciples to return to their old lives. It did not imply the oppressive regime has succeeded. Instead it declared the old ways finished. We can’t go back to normal. The tomb was empty. God could be anywhere now.
Allow me to step back for moment. I am sharing with you the Easter story as a non-Christian. I am looking at the deep message of resurrection and transformation, lifting up the ways this story reveals a life-giving word for anyone. We are atheists, pagans, Christians, mystics, Buddhists, Jews, and seekers together gathered for a moment around the central, holy story of our Christian siblings in faith. We see truths here that nourish us, whether or not we believe the story as fact.
The root message of Easter is transformation. Things are never going back to the way they were before. But we don’t exactly know what’s next. That was a frightening prospect.
We approach this story today from inside a global pandemic that will leave an indelible mark on us as a people. We may long for things to return to normal as soon as possible, yet we know deep down, things will never return to the way they were before. So, we hear this Easter story and wonder what might be possible.
In the Easter story, and echoed through countless interpretations and retellings, we hear that it is not only Jesus who has risen. The message he brought rises as well. And within each hearer there is a rising. In the midst of anguish and loss, amidst betrayal and denial, even through cruelty and death, … something rises. What if that message of love and promise, of hope and power – what if that message is true? The disciples asked themselves then and we ask it still today: What if God is still among us luring us, encouraging us, calling us to rise? The tomb was empty! God could be anywhere, in anyone.
My colleague Kendyl Gibbons posted her Easter message early, so I know she will be saying to her congregation: “What if we, too, on this Easter morning of Corona virus danger and death, are called to rise again, and make a new world? … This isn’t the first time the world has fallen apart — it just seems more devastating because it is ours.”
At the end of the narrative from Mark we read that Mary and the other women fled in terror. We too experience some terror in our situation today. The pandemic is revealing the seismic brokenness of our healthcare system, of our economic system, and of our political system. This brokenness in our society is revealed as the unnecessary and preventable suffering unfolding in front of us.
No, we do not want things to go back to normal. And, amazingly, here is the best part: The very things that are helping us survive this pandemic are the things we want in place on the other side of this pandemic. Love that knows no borders, creative solutions for isolation, and willing acts of compassion to care for the most vulnerable among us. We will carry each other through this together, we will rise with truth and with hope. For such are forces that the empire of Jesus’ time did not understand and that the empires of our time do not understand.
Yes, we will suffer. We will all lose someone. Our mutual well-being may weather this intact, but individuals among us will not. Some among us will perish. We will all suffer. The world we knew it is finished. And yet the tomb is empty. Which means the empire will not win. It is a new day, and we don’t know exactly what is next. And that is what faith is all about: it is a willingness to trust that we can rebuild a shattered world, trusting that we can do better this time; it is trusting each other to rise.
The sane response to what is going on is to feel lost, afraid, sad, and anxious. And that is where Easter finds us. It says, yes, the danger and cruelty are real; yet through it all, from somewhere deep inside and also from beyond us, the refrain continues: “Rise.” it calls to us of love and hope and power. “Rise,” spring sings to us as a sign and a promise. “Rise,” we hear in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. “Rise,” the refrain comes again and again in the Easter message. This dusty and lonely place of fear and loss will not last. “Rise.” We hear the call. It is for us to respond.
In a world without end, may it be so.
How to Stay in Touch without Touching
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Sermon Part I
It is really great to see you and to have you all join in this Zoom online worship service (77 connections were logged in.) These past two weeks have been quite a year. It feels like I’ve compressed a lot into each day recently. I’ve had some significant swings in how I am doing from day to day, and it’s been hard to keep my bearings.
I’ve heard others expressing the same sort of thing. People are scared by this pandemic. For a while we did not have much information about it, and there was a range of conflicting narratives about what was going on. It’s been hard to know where to get trustworthy and credible information about how to respond.
Our Board and I kept checking in about what to do next, trying to discern a path that was not overreacting or underreacting to COVID-19 and the dangers it presents to us. It’s been exhausting just trying to figure it out.
But for our congregation and for many of you with your school and work situations, this past week has seen things come to some resolution – albeit temporary for some and still ambiguous for others – but most people now have chosen (or have had chosen for them) social distancing.
And then the power went out yesterday. I live up in the Chenango Bridge area. We had just packed the chest freezer with frozen food the day before. I was upstairs working on my sermon for our first fully online streaming worship service … and the power went out.
I decided it was a good time to go out for an errand. I drove down Upper Front Street with all the traffic lights dead and I was thinking … is this what’s next? Just when we figure out how to do online worship, I can’t get online anymore because the power is gone? Thankfully, the power came back on after a few hours.
So, here’s what that all boils down to. I’ve been scared. A lot of people have been feeling scared. The uncertainty, the panic-shopping, the inundation of new information, the alarm and panic reactions by some juxtaposed with dismissiveness and mockery by others … it’s all fear. You and I and most of the people we meet have some level of fear coursing through us these days.
So, here is what we’re going to do. We’re going to work on adjusting how we think about all this and how we behave around all this in an effort to ease the fear and build our resilience.
Think about it like this: we’ve just turned ourselves upside down as a country in an effort to slow the spread of this disease. We are practicing the social distancing not out of fear alone. Fear has leaked into it, sure. But that’s not the big player in this. It is our communal interconnectedness leading us as individuals to make personal sacrifices for the good of the vulnerable.
I was talking with Qrri, our Human Rights intern, earlier in the week and she described what we’ve been feeling like this: It’s like we’re all in an unfamiliar room together with our eyes closed and our task is to just move across the room. Are we headed in the right direction? What did we just bump into? Are we almost through the room or still in the middle somewhere? Can’t tell. Hard to know. Keep moving.
So, the uncertainty and the lack of information is unsettling. We don’t know what’s really going to happen next. There are some pretty good guesses or estimations for those who are able to tune in to that. But really, it’s like we making our way across an unfamiliar room with our eyes closed.
But does the feeling change if you imagine this scenario as something you are doing alone or with strangers vs. if you are doing this in a room filled with your friends, family, and fellow congregants? And, that by participating in this ‘close-your-eyes-and-cross-the-room’ game, you are also participating in a behavior that will save lives.
That changes how it feels. At least it does for me. We’re going to work on adjusting how we think about all this and how we behave around all this in an effort to ease the fear and build our resilience.
So, what helps? What’s keeping you grounded? I have found that being with others helps a great deal. And when we can’t actually be together, it is still worth in to be together online. We are not alone. It matters. Because we are all more connected than we usually recognize
I’ve asked our Worship Associate, Trebbe Johnson, to read the piece she wrote for her own blog recently – her response to what’s going on with the pandemic and our social distancing.
“A couple of nights ago I woke up at 3:00 AM with this thought: These days I am connected emotionally with everyone on Earth. …”
Sermon Part II
Finding our balance is the goal; getting grounded again when everything is upended around us. As Unitarian Universalists, what binds us together is our shared values. And in particular, we value community and the special ‘stone-soup’ style of co-creating our community together. Being together is one of the things that grounds us as a people of faith.
Over the years we’ve done surveys and polls asking what is it you appreciate about UUCB … we usually do this as a lead up to stewardship (and I will admit, stewardship season is upon us, so watch for something about that in the mail soon.) When people respond we hear about the preaching – (thank you) – and the great music. But mostly we hear about the community and being with like-hearted people.
We are a community of shared values. That’s how we do church. We don’t believe the same things together, instead it is about the simple value of being together. This pandemic is hitting us right at the heart of who we are as a faith community because our emphasis in on community.
And here is what I’ve learned this past week. Here is what helps me shift what’s been going on for me and for all of us from a fear-based reaction in me to an act of resilience. We are finding our ways to connect and even strengthen our connections through this pandemic.
I don’t mean to say, we are all going to make it through this little thing okay. I mean to imply that what people are going through isn’t awful for some, traumatic for others, and deadly for a few. What I mean is simply this: We can respond together in ways that will ease us into this change better. There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Friends, we are slowing down. Let us go together and we will go far.
Yesterday, we started a formal effort to make phone calls to folks in the congregation we suspect are isolated, who perhaps live alone or are older or are not already connected online. A small number of us have been reaching out to another small number of us: checking in, finding out what’s going on, seeing how we can help. We’ll keep doing that – phone calls to check in with each other.
Another interesting development is all the online meetings we have going on now. I’ve been offering drop-in Zoom meetings each week-day, the schedule is on our website, in our Facebook page, in the announcements insert. Drop in, say hello. I’d love to see you. Our Small Group Ministry folks are figuring out how to Zoom together, as are several of our committees. A friend of mine invited me to play a tabletop game with him and a few other friends online. It was a great opportunity to just relax and laugh and do something that felt familiar with people.
A third bit of news I’ll share is the United Presbyterian Tuesday Community Meals. We are going to staff the kitchen again on Tuesday because it is the 4th Tuesday and people are still hungry. I’ll be there this month in the kitchen. This one is trickier because it involves coming out to the building. I don’t know what the state will think of it, but ‘feeding the hungry’ feels like essential work to me. The kitchen is ‘state-health-code’ clean and healthy. They worked though this last Tuesday, handing out over 80 meals to people on the 17th. If you think you can do this, I’ll tell you, we will figure out how to keep our germs to ourselves as realistically as possible. And … dozens of people will be able to eat that wouldn’t be able to otherwise. This is a powerful way to serve very real needs in our city during this pandemic.
What I mean to reveal by sharing this news about phone calls and community meals and online video calls is to say, we are finding ways to still serve our mission and to still live our values. We are still going to be together; we’re finding our ways to stay in touch even without touching.
How are we going to get through this?
The same way we get through anything – together. We plan to go far, so we’re going to go together. I love you. We’ll see each other through this.
Our world is changed, our focus is narrowed. But we will endure. We are learning of our resilience together. We are leading with compassion and listening for calm wisdom. Yes, our world is changing, and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In a world without end
May it be so
Mary, Maya, Maria
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Poetry has a way of revealing life to us in indirect ways. Poetry is like truth with shades and flavors. Through syntax and rhythm, it reveals a way of seeing the world we don’t usually notice. Emily Dickenson advised us to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Poetry comes at us from the side and reveals life. So today we honor the poetry common to our Unitarian Universalist worship life.
I have selected three poets, none of whom are Unitarian Universalist, whose poetry is so aligned with our way of worship that they have become part of our canon, (if such a thing could be.) And, of course, I don’t mean to imply that only these three are fit poets for our hearts and minds. Simply, these are three whose names have a poetic ring when I say them together. Mary, Maya, and Maria.
Maria is for Rainer Maria Rilke (RY-ner maREE-a RIL-ka.) In his biography https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rainer-maria-rilke on The Poetry Foundation website, he is described as “one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets.” Rilke’s work spans the turn of the previous century into the 1900’s. Quintessentially, his work is about life and death; it is a striving for the “deeper meaning in life through art.” One piece from Rilke that has likely been spoken multiple times in nearly every UU sanctuary is the bit about ‘loving the questions themselves.’ It is from the collection, Letters to a Young Poet. It is exactly what it seems to be. A young poet asked Rilke for advice and received several letters in response. The recipient then published them as a collection shortly after Rilke’s death.
From “Letter 4” in Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
Oh, we UUs do love the questions. And so, this piece has become a central tenet among us. It was Rilke, in this same collection who said: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Rilke’s work has a great deal of Christian imagery. But the God he writes about is not the traditional deity. Rilke was more of a pantheist, seeing God as a life-force. One interesting analysis (again from the biography on the Poetry Foundation website) says that “Rilke arrives at the paradoxical conception of God as the final result instead of the first cause of the cosmic process.”
Listen to this piece from his earliest work The Book of Hours:
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
It offers a striking image of a beloved community such as we strive to accomplish together each week in our Unitarian Universalist gathering.
Another poet who worked from within the compelling imagery of Beloved Community is Maya Angelou. Angelou comes into the concept, as many Americans have, through the civil rights movement in America during the 1960’s. She was, among many things, a civil rights activist who worked with both Dr. King and Malcolm X.
Her biography on the Poetry Foundation website https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/maya-angelou lists her as a poet, a playwright, and performer of dance and song. She was an actress, an activist, and an autobiographer. And forget not, also a composer, a director, an editor, and an essayist. And at heart, she was a storyteller.
Keeping in mind that image of beloved community, she offered this poem, published when she was in her 60’s but harkening back to her youth in the 1930’s and 40’s.
“These Yet to Be United States” – Maya Angelou
Tremors of your network
cause kings to disappear.
Your open mouth in anger
makes nations bow in fear.
Your bombs can change the seasons,
obliterate the spring.
What more do you long for?
Why are you suffering?
You control the human lives
in Rome and Timbuktu.
Lonely nomads wandering
owe Telstar to you.
Seas shift at your bidding,
your mushrooms fill the sky.
Why are you unhappy?
Why do your children cry?
They kneel alone in terror
with dread in every glance.
Their nights are threatened daily
by a grim inheritance.
You dwell in whitened castles
with deep and poisoned moats
and cannot hear the curses
which fill your children’s throats.
I usually connect Angelou with the uplifting poetry and language I love, like when she said: “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” And “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.”
But she is also the person who said, in her poem, ‘On Working White Liberals,’ “I’ll believe in Liberal’s aid for us when I see a White man load a Black man’s gun.” Maya had an edge, best to not forget that. But life has an edge as well, so we still have much to learn from Dr. Angelou.
Indeed, the best part of what I learn from her is that through the struggle, we survive. Her critique is always weighted with the reality that the story is not done, there is more still to say. Her most famous work is her autobiography from 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, telling the story of her childhood. Her poem, “Caged Bird” reveals, poetically, much the same truth as the autobiography.
Caged Bird BY MAYA ANGELOU
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
But far above all that her poem “Still I Rise,” as we heard at the Time for All Ages, is the ringing anthem of resilience for our time. She speaks in both the particular as a Black woman in America’s 20th century as well as for all women, for all Americans, for all people… but no mistake – mostly for black women! Because when Black women rise, we all benefit.
And now, we shift our attention to the best known of the three I sing for today in our UU circles. Many is the joke about creating a generic UU service that shall include “your favorite Mary Oliver poem.” A year ago, with the big January snow storm that hit Binghamton, we cancelled services; but I left an ‘in case of emergency’ worship service in the Fireside Room that consisted of a Jason Shelton CD and about a dozen Mary Oliver Poems.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver was a guest among the Unitarian Universalists at our General Assembly a few years back and I had the honor to be in the room for her poetry reading. It was remarkable. The way she mixes the nature world with basic human searching is elegant. Even her little poems about her dog Percy accomplish this.
LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT by Mary Oliver
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
I’m not a dog person, but I love that little poem. In her biography on the Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver, they say her poetry is “Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world.” Evocative, yes. That’s the word for her body of work. In her amazing poem “When Death Comes,” she writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” She has this way of bringing wonder into our way of seeing the world. Many Unitarian Universalists find their spirituality enriched by her words, by her way of saying it.
I close with her poem “Wild Geese,” so rich with wisdom and power offered into our longing hearts.
Wild Geese –Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary, Maya, and Maria. These three poets from outside Unitarian Universalism have done much to help us articulate what is at the heart of our faith. Their poetry reveals life to us and feeds us truth with shades and flavors. We give thanks for the gift of their words and their influence among us. May we ever heed the wisdom of poets in matters of truth and faith.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Opening Words #536 “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Time for All Ages Still I Rise BY MAYA ANGELOU
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, XXIX ~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Reading by Liddy Wilks (poet)
. . . poetry is a bridge. An immediate path to becoming better people and being the change in the world. Creating a world less about tearing each other down and apart, and more about coming together. Helping us to realize that we’re not as different as we think. And despite our differences, we are not alone in our grief, pain, joy or happiness.
Reading and writing poetry is the greater good. Whose benefits are the rebuilding and forging a more connected and caring world.
Benediction CONTINUE By Maya Angelou
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue