Rev. Douglas Taylor
This video we just watched – KEEP LOVING: A Universal Love Song by Empty Hands Music https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLx7I9WcMK0LZ19ADweJE5IWFrnKeqTer1&v=5WAViUDYZOQ&feature=emb_logo is perhaps an interesting choice on my part. Rap music is not my usual genre of appreciation, is not what we usually offer in our worship services. But I could not resist using this video for two reasons. One reason, perhaps obviously, is the message of the song. The opening stanza says:
Whether you’re different, same, ignorant or intelligent
Whether you tell the truth, lie or embellish it
Whether you live in gratitude or for the hell of it
It doesn’t really matter, we’re still one single fellowship
The statement of unity is not new or radical. What struck me though is how loaded with judgement the listed differences can be. ‘Living in gratitude or for the hell of it’- it doesn’t take much to figure out if Rev. Taylor has an opinion about which is better. Spoiler: living in gratitude is better. “It doesn’t really matter,” the song says. Do you lie or tell the truth? ‘it doesn’t really matter, we’re still one single fellowship.’ I think it does matter. I am in favor of not lying (although ‘embellishing the truth’ is something I have declared acceptable a la Emily Dickenson.)
What I’m saying is that the message of radical acceptance in these lyrics is very unusual. It challenges me, pushes me to live my values.
So keep loving,
It’ll change your heart, it’ll change your mind
And then you’ll start to change your eyes
So keep loving
Everything you touch, everyone you see
Will soon become, your family
I offered us this auto-tuned rap song for two reasons. One is the radical message of acceptance and love in the lyrics. The other is the visual representation. For those of you who listened on the phone or didn’t see the video – it is a depiction of a variety of people on a subway. Over the course of the song, they shift from being wary of each other to smiling and dancing with each other. They go from being isolated to being connected. It reminded me of a very powerful reflection I’d found in a class I taught her several years back.
It was a reflection on justice-making as a spiritual disciple from the Spirit of Life curriculum. The author Robert Thurman is a Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. He writes:
“Imagine you are on the subway. In your subway car are all sorts of people, the kinds of people who would normally ride on the subway in a big city. A mix of working class, wealthy, and middle class people. People speaking many different languages, people of many skin colors and cultures, people of many ages. Some people who are clean and polished looking, others who are smelly and unkempt. Some who are quiet, some who talk too loud, some who talk to themselves. Some who annoy you terribly and some who you find attractive. All sorts of people are on this subway car, heading to their destination.
All of a sudden, Martians come and zap the subway car. And soon you figure out that as a result of this zap, everyone on the subway car is going to be together—forever.
How does that change the way you act? Think about it. If they’re freaking out, you’re going to try to calm them. If they’re hungry, you’re going to try to feed them. If they’re arguing, you’re going to try to figure out what’s going on and seek resolution. If there’s injustice, you’re going to try to make it just.
You do it because suddenly, these assorted people on the subway are your people. The ones you will dwell with forever. You care about them in a whole different way. What we do and what we care about matters. When we allow ourselves to see the bigger picture, we can see that we are all already on that subway car—Earth.
We are absolutely interconnected and interdependent, (Robert Thurman concludes). How we are, what we do, they ripple out. Whatever happens “over there,” happens “over here,” too. Because these people are your people. My people. Our people.“
This way of seeing each other is not normal for us. Division through fear and hate are such old tools in our world. The old genetic tribalism drives us to separate each other into friends and enemies, us and them, good people and bad people, my people and other people. Fear and hate are powerful tools that keep us small and fractured. A love that could build something better among us would indeed be revolutionary.
So keep loving,
It’ll change your heart, it’ll change your mind
And then you’ll start to change your eyes
So keep loving
Everything you touch, everyone you see
Will soon become, your family
Our reading this morning is from Valarie Kaur. In her recent book, See No Stranger: A memoir and manifesto of Revolutionary Love she offers a compelling message for our lives today. She bids us to look at others and say you are a part of me I do not yet know.
In her book she talks about the experience of being a brown-skinned Sikh from India in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In the days and weeks after the towers were destroyed, there was a rash of hate crimes against Arab Americans and South Asian Americans, as well as against Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
Many people were harassed, targeted with verbal abuse, threatened and banned simply because of their ethnicity and religion. The first person murdered in retaliation of the 9/11 attack almost 20 years ago was a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was gunned down at his gas station in Arizona by a man who claimed to be a patriot.
Valarie Kaur knew him. To her, Mr. Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first hate crime victim of 9/11 was Balbir Uncle. She shares stories of him in her book, his generosity, his smile, his faith. He was not Muslim or Arab, but he was brown-skinned and wearing a turban so it was close enough for hate. Valarie describes her anger, her grief, her pain after the murder of Balbir Uncle.
She also describes her first dramatic lesson in Revolutionary Love. There was an interfaith prayer memorial a week after the murder. Three thousand people came to pray and weep and share a resolution against hate together. Valarie Kaur describes the impact this had on Joginder Auntie – the widow.
She bore the pain, but she did not bear it alone. She shared it with people she had never met before. “They didn’t even know me,” she kept saying. “But they cried with me.” (p56)
For Valarie Kaur, this was an eye-opening. Her grief-stricken auntie, like Valarie herself, had been angry at the country at the people who hated her husband for no valid reason, at the pain this violence had caused. But her auntie saw something else as well.
There is a powerful drive toward division among us. But there is also a drive toward love. People can decide to hate and hurt people they have never met – people they do not know and never will interact with. And people can decide to love and bless strangers as well. “How can you say you love them; you do not even know them?” But people have done much and more out of a choice to hate, why not love? The choice to love strangers is not less illogical and irrational than the choice to hate random people because of some genetic characteristic such as ethnicity.
Valarie Kaur shot into our national attention a little over four years ago, at the edge of Donald Trump’s presidency. She had been a tireless advocate and activist for peace and civil rights over decades, but there was a moment when her voice rose into our national attention. She was one of the speakers on New Year’s Eve in 2016 for a Repairers of the Breach rally with Rev. William Barber. She asked, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKMEqF0OVxs&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=RevolutionaryLove
How do we breathe and push?
There is something different happening around us today, something like the massive social changes that occurred in the ‘60’s. More people are paying attention. More people are unwilling to back down in the face of ongoing injustice. There is a turning underway. The killing of black and brown people is not being swept under the rug as easily. The immoral plight of migrant children in cages at our southern boarder continues to be in the news. The urgency of the global climate crisis is looming and people are not backing down. Something different is happening among us today. People are pushing. We are breathing through the grief and pushing and pushing and pushing as the midwives have taught us.
Kaur calls us to act with Revolutionary Love. It is a key element of her faith as a Sikh. I imagine you will not be surprised to hear how The Golden Rule is manifest in all the world’s religious traditions. This call to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ is a call into Revolutionary Love, to see no stranger, to allow love to change your mind and change your heart as that rap song suggested – “and then you’ll start to change your eyes.”
It is a call to see the stranger as a neighbor, even as a sibling. We are all kin and we can treat each other as such. We are all on this subway car together. We are all in danger from this pandemic and from the rot of systemic racism and the impact of the climate crisis. We are all in danger and we are paying attention because we are kin.
And this Revolutionary Love calls us to live as kin, to see our connectedness beyond old tribal lines of fear and hate. It is not a new call. Indeed, it is a call that has echoed through the ages and cultures and faith traditions forever. Today, it is a call to raise a fist and say “Black Lives Matter” because we care about the abusive police in our white supremacy culture and want them to heal and stop hurting too. It is a call today to refuse the lies and conspiracies rampant in our politics because truth matters and also because we care about the people being deceived and spreading hate and want them to heal and stop hurting too.
And it goes on like this – wanting justice out of love instead of anger. It goes on like this for the poor and the immigrant and the abused and traumatized. The call of revolutionary love goes on like this calling us to see no stranger. To recognize that we are woven together in a single garment of destiny. To begin to change how we see the world and one another. To breathe and to push as the midwives have taught us.
And today, something new is happening. And our faith calls us into liberation. And our Love calls us to see each other as kin. And more and more people are pushing together to bring a better world into being.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Fields of Promise
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Back in August when I dreamed up my preaching schedule for the year, I imagined that by the end of January I would need to do a sermon about how the contractors are finished with their renovation work and even though we still cannot meet in person, we can start filling the building with a vision of who we will become in this next chapter of our congregation’s life. I imagined I would say “We are done building, now we must fill the rooms.” That’s how I imagined it.
Our Soul Matters theme for the month of January has been “imagination.” Even though the contractors are not yet finished – such a project always take longer than expected – I invite you to imagine with me about this stretch of time between when we are finished with the renovation work but the pandemic is still keeping us from large in-person gatherings. It has been a long journey up to this point, and now that we are nearly finished with this new building, what are we to do with it? Who are we to be in it?
I want to be intentional about who we are now that we have this new building. That old cliché that ‘the clothes make the man” is commentary about how we are judged by our appearances. And Jesus did scold the Pharisees saying they would clean the outside of their cup (Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11:39-40) while the inside was corrupt with greed and indulgence. Do we need to be wary of such problems? I think not.
We have this shiny new building, a cup that is clean on the outside, fancy new clothes if you will. It is important to notice that we have not neglected the insides. The point all along has been for the renovations to help make our building a better reflection of our community.
We have been living out values and our mission through this in-between time. The “spiritual home” we talk about in our mission statement has continued while we have been displaced from our building. Our mission talks about honoring our interconnectedness, encouraging growth, and working for justice and compassion. I have witnessed, as surely you have as well, that we have remained committed to these guiding values. The building can be perceived as a reflection of our community because each step along the process was grounded in our community’s values.
Here’s an interesting counterpoint to ponder. Perhaps the shiny new building is more than a reflection of our community. Perhaps it is not only a mirror of who we are and have been, but also of who might may yet become. There is an excitement in this project. We’re done a grand thing with this renovation project. And, we have put a bit more into this project than everything we’ve ever been. There are some dreams and bold hopes build in as well. Some vision of something yet to be. It will be exciting to be in the building when it is done, to inhabit the new spaces, fill them with our activities and our love.
The point is, we have not merely polished up the outside of our cup. We have made the whole cup a better reflection of who we are as a community. The counterpoint is, we have added into the plans some hopes and dreams of who we may yet become.
For the past month, I have done something a little unconventional – at least by my own standards. I have used the same benediction for five Sundays in a row. “Gee, Douglas – how bold!” I know it is a small thing, a subtle change that might not have been noticed. That’s why I point it out now. It connects to my title “Fields of Promise.”
It has surprised me how well this benediction has fit for the various topics of White Supremacy, Healing in the Pandemic, Young Adults worship, and interplay of Truth and Imagination.
V. Emil Gudmundson was an Icelandic Unitarian minister from the mid-1900’s He wrote:
“And now, may we have faith in life to do wise planting that the generations to come may reap even more abundantly than we. May we be bold in bringing to fruition the golden dreams of human kinship and justice. This we ask that the fields of promise become the fields of reality.“
This field we’ve been working for decades, this community we have been tending, has just received a dramatic overhaul. For years we’ve discussed maybe making some changes to the building. These fields, so rich with promise, are transforming into reality.
A few months back I declared we need not wait until the building is done to become the people of a new building. We can be those people now. As I have reminded us again and again – we have found creative ways to stay in touch and keep connected through this pandemic and renovation. We have found ways to still serve the community while we are scattered across the wide lands. Throughout this in-between time, we have not just been waiting and watching. We’ve been living our mission still.
Back in the fall of 2017, when we were still near the beginning of this bold building project, I preached a sermon entitled “Building an Audacious and Dangerous Faith” (October 29, 2017). In that sermon I asked us to think about the magic of our congregation, the essential burning ember at our core. I asked us to recognize the good stuff going on in our congregation and the consider – “What will we be doing better in 5 years?”
And I said: As we think about changes to our physical space, renovation and additions, consider it through the lens of our mission and our vision. Consider what we might do for our building as a way to better live our faith.
That was three and a half years ago. I asked you to consider a five-year stretch. Use your imagination with me for a moment. Imagine we are sitting together a year and half from now – so as to hit that five-year-mark I mentioned earlier. It was the fall of 2017 when I asked “What will we be doing better in 5 years?”
If we set a date in the near future, say the fall of 2022, to look back over 5 years of work – the first third of that time (2018 and ’19) will have been planning and fund raising and dreaming and looking at floor plans. The middle third of that time (2020 and ‘21) will have been spent scattered away from the building during renovations. The last third of that time (this spring until the fall of 2022) will have been spent filling the building back up with our presence and our energy and our joy.
Some of our elders have been lingering at the sidelines, not interested in the online technology of zoom. Some of our young families have been overwhelmed by online technology and are also less present at the moment. Will people return all at once when we have a safe building in which to meet? Will they trickle back slowly and steadily as vaccinations become prevalent? Will the new faces and the returning faces be surprised to see each other?
In the fall of 2022, maybe we’ll be able to look back fondly at our 2021 Ingathering Water Ceremony in person in September. Maybe we’ll have hosted a grand Witches and Wizards Masquerade at the end of October of this calendar year. Maybe we’ll have held a big Thanksgiving Dinner for ourselves and guests served from our newly renovated kitchen. Imagine what it will be like.
What new classes and activities will we be offering. Will the Young Adults have hosted a regional gathering in building? Will we have seen the resurgence of the woman’s Crone Con? Will our focus on anti-racism classes and discussion lead to a bold new justice-making program of some sort in partnership with the local community?
Will we host community forums in our new space? Will we host community dinners? How will we be serving the broader community, serving needs greater than just our own now that we have this fine building to work from?
I am convinced, perhaps unrealistically so, but convinced nonetheless, that we will develop a multifaceted ministry related to nutrition and hunger. I imagine we might have a community gardens program or a soup kitchen or pantry that we sponsor. I imagine we could end up being a regular supporter of the new Greater Good Grocery in what had been the North Side food desert. I imagine we might partner with other congregations feeding the hungry. Or maybe none of those things will occur, because something better than I’ve even dreamed of will capture our excitement and passion.
I think these imaginings of our near future are realistic dreams because of what I have witnessed of how we’ve managed to live our mission and vision right now.
Our Reverse Advent Food Drive from last month was a great success. Over 30 people in our congregation participated in an obvious, countable way. It may be many others also participated in a quiet way. Canned food was delivered earlier this month to four different recipients including the Tioga Rural Ministry and the Binghamton Food Rescue. Financial donations were also made by many of us to over half a dozen different hunger support agencies.
Next week is the Super Bowl. A common activity is to donate soup to make it a Souper-bowl celebration as well. Consider donating some cans of soup next week to CHOW or another food distribution site near you.
But here is the best part of it all. Our mission and vision as a congregation is not locked into one specific way of growth and service. It can take nearly any form.
At the Time for All Ages, I painted rocks and talked about hiding them at parks later in the spring. It is a way of spreading beauty and encouragement. I was inspired by a song Lois sent to me.
Mat and Savanna Shaw are a father/daughter singing duo that became a YouTube sensation during the pandemic this past year. They produced a number of videos singing together and encouraging others to share their own gifts and talents as well. A few months ago, they organized a food drive to help the overburdened food bank in their area. Back in the warmer weather, they sang at a Socially Distanced concert in the courtyard of a nursing home. They launched their own twitter hashtag, #ShareHopeSpreadJoy, in an effort to encourage people to share kindness and support to others in their communities during the pandemic.
The point is this, they had a gift to offer. They leveraged that gift to help other people. You have a gift to offer. Just offer it. It doesn’t have to be leveraged; it doesn’t have to be grand. I may grow into something grand – I don’t know. But it doesn’t need to. The fields of promise are filled with possibility. Some of that grows into the fields of reality.
This isn’t about a result; this isn’t about a goal. We’ve already built the building. What I’m talking about now is less about what we end up doing with the building and more about how we get there. It is about how we arrive at the result, more than any particular result. Who are we as a congregation? Who are the people of this new building? How has compassion and justice shaped our path so far? How will we encourage growth going forward? Where has grace appeared on our journey and where can we encourage it to appear again?
The only way to become a Beloved Community is to behave a little more each day as people living in a Beloved Community.
We have done something grand together with this renovation project. We have brought our building forward to be a better reflection of our community. It is a better reflection of who we are and of who we yet may be. We have each taken part in our shared journey to this point. We have each contributed to the mosaic that is our congregation so far. What is next? What awaits us around the bend?
Friends, we are moving together into a new chapter of our faith community. We have set the stage. The first few pages are drafted. The canvas is prepped. The fields are furrowed and ready. And as it does every morning, an adventure of the spirit awaits us this day.
In a world without end, may it be so.
How to Take Down White Supremacy
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I want to tell you how to take down White Supremacy. But first, let me share with you a story about something I learned from a bunch of youth leaders.
This first story is from about a dozen or so years ago. I was attending our General Assembly – the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists for business, programs, and collegial interaction. That year in particular, I was attending as clergy and also as a youth sponsor for my eldest child. This dual role led to some scheduling overlap and I had to make choices about where I spent my time.
One afternoon, I opted to skip the big keynote lecture at the ministers’ gathering to instead attend the orientation meeting for the Youth Delegates and their sponsors. I have been deeply grateful for that choice as the years have gone on, because at that orientation session I heard the most remarkable rationale for abiding by the agreed-upon rules of participation that I’ve ever been offered.
The ground rule that had prompted this story was the fairly standard ‘no smoking or alcohol’ rule for the youth. Instead of saying ‘hey, cigarettes and alcohol are illegal for under-age youth such as yourselves,’ or the problematic ‘hey, you can make your own choices but remember such choices can damage the whole community;’ the organizers of the event took a different route.
They began be naming the rule. They reminded folks that AA and NA recovery support meetings were available at General Assembly. But the stroke of genius was when one of the presenters said, ‘Remember, addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy; stay sober and stick it to the man.’
Sobriety as a form of resistance; such a compelling notion. Be a rebel by following these rules. It really makes one think about what being a rebel has to look like and what we are resisting, and how the conversation is about both what we are against and what we are for. Stay sober and stick it to the man.
This has been an intriguing idea for me over the ensuing years. Is addiction a tool of the Patriarchy? How would that work? To say an oppressive culture – for that is what is meant by the term ‘Patriarchy’ in this context – uses a tool such as addiction, we are not saying the Patriarchy invented addiction. Addiction is its own thing, and as such can happen without the Patriarchy’s meddling. The suggestion is that the Patriarchy has found it useful to have people addicted to drugs and alcohol so as to better maintain a patriarchal control over culture. Addiction is one of the tools the Patriarchy uses to maintain oppressive gender norms in society.
To really unpack that idea would be more of a dissertation than a sermon, but let me use the premise as a springboard into my point for us this morning. In the mid-1980’s, feminist, poet, and activist, Audre Lorde delivered a speech in which she proclaimed, “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Staying with the example of addiction for a moment, we cannot regain control of our addictive lives by becoming addicted to something else. Addiction itself will continue to twist and pervert our actions. The way to regain self-control is to recover from addiction as a tool, not to merely refocus a particular addiction onto a different topic.
And here is the pivotal thought of our morning: other oppressive systems, such as White Supremacy and racism, also use such tools to maintain control over people such as you and me. It becomes useful to ask, ‘what are the tools being used against us?’
This is a very different question from the more common one – ‘who is using these tools against us?’ It is difficult to really grapple with the discovery that, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Yes, there are actual White Supremacists out there causing trouble. This has been on the news lately. There are racists and haters of many stripes, out there insidiously committing racist and hateful deeds. And yes, it does get ugly when some of these individuals get into positions of power and authority in our country. But we also participate in this culture.
When we can ask ‘what are the tools being used against us?’ instead of ‘who is using these tools?’ then we begin to uncover the systems that are set up to support the racists and haters around us. We begin to uncover the ways in which the systems of oppression turn us into participants in our own oppression.
In our reading this morning, from Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist, we heard the distinction between a racist and an antiracist. At one point, Kendi offers this: “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.” (p9) It can be a logical assumption to say that the problem of racism is about the behaviors and attitudes of racist people.
However, we are all part of the systems and structures of our culture. I agree with what Kendi is saying, that the problem of racism is not about a group of racists who are out there somewhere doing racists things. I agree that the problem is the system around us in which we are participants.
Kendi actually goes several steps further and later in the book he talks about “racist policies leading to racist ideas, not the other way around, as we have commonly thought.” (p230) But for the sake of our point this morning, let us consider racist policies as one of the tools of White Supremacy.
Through the years, legal restrictions on housing and property and employment and education have had racial ramifications. Slavery was legal, Jim Crow segregation laws were widely upheld, mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses created a surge in prison populations with racial implications. Kendi’s point is that these racist policies have been the tools that built up our country’s ideas of racial inequality. These and other laws have shaped our country over the generations, usually not in ways that help people of color. Occasionally there is a helpful law that comes along – voting rights, affirmative action, that sort of thing.
Over 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)
Here is the difficulty – Legislative change is one of the keys to dealing with racism in our country. The vast majority of citizens in this country, however, are not in a position to shape our laws. We can lobby, we can protest, we can advocate and influence, we can vote, but most of what happens with the shaping of our country’s laws and policies is not in our direct control.
So, what are we to do? How are we to participate in dismantling White Supremacy? We do have some control, some influence. I am not in congress creating better laws, but I am here – I am a leader in this community. Consider again the question “what are the tools being used against us?” Racist policies and laws, that’s one set of the tools. There are others. There are tools embedded in our culture, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We can be clear about what that means, what those tools are. And we can choose new tools with which to build.
I was rereading an article from a few years back about the characteristics of White Supremacy culture. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc The article outlined some analysis of what is meant by the tools of the oppressive culture, along with suggestions to counter these characteristics.
Before I rattle off a list, let me reiterate what I said about the idea that addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy. The Patriarchy certainly did not invent addiction. Addiction has served as a useful tool for maintaining control of the gender norms of our society. Similarly, this list of characteristics of White Supremacy includes, for example, perfectionism. White Supremacy has not invented perfectionism, it merely uses that tool to maintain control of racial norms in our society.
There are more than a dozen characteristics listed in the article: Perfectionism, Fear of Open Conflict, Either/Or Thinking, a Right to Comfort, Power Hoarding, and the idea that there is Only One Right Way – these are some of the characteristics on the list.
Again, this is one group’s considered analysis of the characteristics. They may be right on the mark, but this isn’t an exact science. We’re talking cultural analysis here, not dictionary editing.
But consider this: I have been using this analysis for several years in my ministry with this congregation.
I have been working to build a multicultural beloved community – a community that runs counter to the regular pressures of White Supremacy culture. Perhaps you have noticed, for example, the importance we place on imperfection and grace, on growing from our mistakes rather than not having any mistakes. Or perhaps you have noticed our willingness to have conflicts, to not shy away from differences and disagreements. We struggle to do it, but we value healthy conflicts in this community.
We have talked for years about “shared ministry.” White Supremacy culture uses the tool of “Power Hoarding.” Power Hoarding is marked by people who have “the best interests of the organization at heart” but resist change and see those calling for change as being “ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced.” We don’t do that here. I and other leaders work to share the power, to welcome change, to listen to dissent. We find our way to still move forward, adjusting as we go to the insights that arise.
You may notice these characteristics dovetail with each other. That emphasis on Shared Ministry connects with our pluralistic theology, which in turn counters the message of White Supremacy that there is Only One Right Way to solve a problem or be in the world. Our openness leads us to embrace a both/and perspective rather than an either/or mindset.
We have been using the better tools in the congregation for years. Ours is a culture of growth and learning rather than perfectionism, of appreciation of differences rather than fear of open conflict, of plurality rather than rigidity, of shared ministry rather than power hoarding, of kindness rather than politeness.
Our congregation is a living and thriving example of what can happen when we use these different tools. We’re not a perfect example, of course. We stumble and are still figuring it out. But that’s part of the point. We are working to build a beloved community together.
I do spend a lot of time, especially during the pandemic, talking about the value of community. But I am not just applauding conformity. I am not lauding a happy, feel-good, touchy-feely, agree-to-disagree, false-unity kind of community. I am talking about the hard work of being real and authentic together while working for more justice and compassion in the world.
If you are interested in learning to take down White Supremacy, the work can be done in layers. Big picture: pay attention to legislation and the racial consequences of our legal practices, particularly as they impact the poor. That’s where the most effective change can occur. This is what I find exciting in Kendi’s book. We can make important changes, moral changes for the good of our society.
And on another level, you can stay sober and stick it to the man. Do what you can to welcome a change of heart within yourself, an opening of grace in your life that you may continue to learn and grow. A change of heart is not something that happens once and you can check the box. It is an ongoing experience. And, that’s where you have the most control, your own life and habits.
And finally, to dismantle White Supremacy, build something better in every place you are – home, church, school, work, your circle of friends. Use the better tools. I’ll include the full list from that article I mentioned when I publish the sermon. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc
But the most important piece, at every level, is to live fully the convictions of equality and liberation. It is not enough to think about all this or sigh about it. We have to walk with the wind, move toward the trouble and work together. Change is needed and change happens through our living and our actions. Investigate the tools being used against us and explore how we can use different tools to build something better together.
In a world without end
May it be so
Heal the World
Rev. Douglas Taylor and Trebbe Johnson
DOUGLAS: I begin memorial services with words that essentially say we are here to mourn a loss and celebrate a life. We gather in both grief and gratitude. This morning I say this to us as well. We gather in grief and gratitude for this past years’ worth of plague. It has been one year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19, a man in the Wuhan province of China. Since then, over 1.9 million people around this world have died from this plague. We are likely to hit the 2 million mark before the end of this month, possibly within the coming week. It has been a year, and the illness continues to spread.
In the United States alone, we are adding 2k to 3k deaths to that total each day; we approach the 400,000 mark as a nation. And yet, we’ve recently experienced a turning point in the politics of our country. We have vaccines beginning to be distributed, indeed a few members of the congregation have received their first dose. Better days are coming. But we are still in the thick of it.
So we gather this morning in mourning. We gather in grief for what has been lost and in gratitude for the great turning we are experiencing. On balance, there is much for which we can be grateful. But before we tumble too quickly into that sigh of relief, let us pause together to acknowledge our losses and our grief. This has been a rough year.
As Trebbe shared in the announcements, her organization Radical Joy for Hard Times is hosting a Global Day of Mourning to commemorate a year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19. In connection with that, I’ve invited Trebbe to share this sermon with me as a conversation. We will take turns asking each other questions over the next few minutes, circling around this theme of grief and gratitude in the pandemic.
TREBBE: This topic has been on my heart for a while now, and I am so glad to be a part of this conversation. I want to start with a question to you first:
Douglas, what’s it been like to be a minister during the pandemic? What about the challenges of Sunday services online? What about pastoral care? Did you give memorials or weddings or naming ceremonies that couldn’t be done or had to be done in some other way? And all this while we are creating a new building!
DOUGLAS: On March 22nd we held our first 100% online streaming worship service. I titled that sermon “How to Stay in Touch without Touching.” I reminded us on that Sunday morning back in the spring that our core as a faith community is not found in a shared belief but in shared values. One deep value that is like a golden thread for us is the value of connection. And this pandemic has hit us right at the heart of who we are a faith community together. I also reminded us of an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And I encouraged us to slow down that we might go together and go far.
Since that time, I have struggled with some aspects of this ministry in a pandemic. I was initially thrown by the difficulty of preaching when everyone is on mute and my screen is focused on the manuscript rather than your faces. It has felt like preaching into the void. It helps to imagine you all listening. It has grown easier with practice.
The other significant challenge has been not being able to visit the sick and people in nursing homes. I have relied on a ministry of presence and have struggled with how to keep connected with people who are in nursing homes and under COVID-19 restrictions.
On top of that, this pandemic reactivated my depression – which, as I talked about last month, tends to lead be into believing the worst about myself and my capabilities as a minister.
By the fall, most of that was under better control. I was on medication, I was more familiar with the ways we could use Zoom in worship, and I discovered many of you were also reaching out to each other – keeping in touch in this time of no touching.
You asked, Trebbe, about rites of passage and I note that the very last event we held in person at the Presbyterian building was the memorial service for Heda Libby on March 15th. I have officiated at other graveside and funeral services as well as an outdoor wedding since then, and each has been strained by the difficulties of the pandemic, each has been adjusted or modified to allow for some of that we need to do while allowing for the reality of health and safety precautions. None of us are untouched by this pandemic.
Trebbe, what challenges have you faced over this pandemic, what losses and changes in your work have occurred?
TREBBE: The biggest loss for me, of course, was that my beloved Andy, my husband died. He didn’t die of COVID, but of advanced liver cancer, which was diagnosed just five days before he died. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to stay at the hospice facility with him, to do ceremony with him, and talk about what it meant to him to die. And he went without regret, remorse, bitterness, or anger. He was ready, and that was quite beautiful. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath.
To be perfectly honest, there have been many times during this pandemic when I’ve also been grateful that I’m a natural loner, an introvert. I think it’s been much easier to be isolated than it has for those who are extroverts and depend on the company of others for their energy. But I must say I have missed physical contact a lot, especially after Andy’s death, although I still talk to one or two friends on Zoom or on the phone every day even now, five months later.
Because I’ve been thinking and writing for decades about the relationship between grief and beauty and joy, I think this pandemic has expanded my sense of compassion. I often feel like the stories of countless others are kind of hovering in a place in my consciousness that is somewhere between imagination and memory. The combination of my grief over Andy’s death and that widening sense of the suffering of others is what prompted me to create a Global Day of Mourning.
Douglas, tell me, what does it mean to you to grieve?
DOUGLAS: Growing up in an alcoholic home, strong emotions were frowned upon, anger and sadness were like weakness in some ways – at least that was the unspoken message I’d picked up. So I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life figuring out how to be appropriately angry or healthfully sad. One clue I keep returning to over the years is that such emotions are rooted in love and fear.
“Sorrow comes where love abides” is a phrase I say in the benediction of most memorial services. Our grief is borne of our love, and sometimes of our fear that the love is gone, never to return. To grieve is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Grief is a consequence of love. And love, really, is what this whole human experience is about.
Trebbe, why would we want to set aside a day to mourn? Wouldn’t it be better to try to get over it and focus on positive things?
TREBBE: I love this question! First of all, it means to get real. It means to allow ourselves to feel the pain in our hearts and express it. I think something that often happens is that people feel like they should be controlling their own suffering because they presume that someone else is suffering more acutely. Someone apologized to me for grieving the death of her cat when I was grieving the death of my husband. I said, “No! Your cat died! That’s your sad reality right now!” There is a great effort, especially in this country, with our image of relentless positivity, to “get beyond” suffering, to “put it behind us.” And what happens is that we do that, or attempt to do it, without facing it our sorrow in the first place! How can you put something behind you if you haven’t faced it?
So we have to face the sorrow, whatever it’s about—the death of a loved one, your inability to see your new grandchild at Christmas, your extremely confusing and isolating first year of college. We have to accept the reality of sadness and cry over it. Since Andy died, I cry whenever I have to, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. In the beginning, that crying was like having something absolutely wrenched out of me, like being flayed, it was so painful. But then, every time, what happens is, we cry and the crying itself seems to heal something. I often have had the feeling that the grief itself is pushing me back out of its own dark well, back into the light.
And that brings me to another understanding of what it means to grieve. It also means not staying there in that deep well beyond the necessary time! That doesn’t mean, in my experience, that you go through a certain number of weeks or months and then you start feeling better. It means you step in and out of deep grief daily. And I believe in experiencing both the dark and the light fully. When we’re in the well of grief, we need to just cry. And then, when it’s over, we need to look around and say, What’s calling me now? What’s beautiful? How can I contribute? How can I live with as much passion and commitment and intention as possible?
Douglas—when you consider ways to grieve, what comes to you? Are some ways of grieving better, or healthier, or more likely to lead to healing than others?
DOUGLAS: A few weeks back we had a Sunday service with a pre-recorded sermon from Rabbi Sharon Brous. In that sermon, the rabbi talked about three movements we should go through as we move through difficult times. First we should grieve, she said. What follows is a capacity to speak truth and our ability to build a new future. This is a powerful blueprint the Rabbi offers us, for national and global change as well as how to navigate the personal losses of our lives.
You ask if there are some ways of grieving that are better or healthier than others – to which I refer back to this blueprint. Does your grief allow you to then speak truth or does it bid you to hide and be ashamed of what has occurred? Does your grief allow you to imagine a better day ahead?
Nationally, I think our communal grief response to the coronavirus has not been healthy or productive because it has not led us to speak a communal truth about it. Too many lies have been allowed to flourish in the shadows of our loss and pain. There has been little to no acknowledgement by our government of the losses due to the plague. I believe our government is the body that could rightly lead us into a national communal recognition of this experience and a conversation of how we can move through and beyond this experience together.
This is an experience the whole world is having, that our country is sadly amplifying. We should be able to mourn the daily loss that is rolling over us! The fruit of healthy grieving is the ability to speak truth and to build a new future in the days and weeks to come. Grief is not easy. But it is extremely valuable.
Trebbe how we can do more than cope with heartaches and difficulty, how can we thrive?
TREBBE: To go back to what I said before, we have to begin coping with heartache and difficulty by admitting we’re in heartache and difficulty. We have to reach out to others—by phone, by Zoom, in person, whatever is possible—and honestly express what we’re going through.
And then we have to remember, in that same context, that same conversation or Zoom call, that others have lives too, and heartache, and hard times. Opening up to the world of others expands our own world.
It’s also very important to find life, beauty, and meaning wherever we can. I’ll tell you a story. Less than an hour after Andy died, I had packed up our things at the hospice facility and was taking the first load out to my car. It was nearly midnight. When I stepped outside the air-conditioned building, I was astonished to hear the songs of katydids in an immense chorus in the woods and even on the other side of the road. I just put down my bags and stood there listening for a minute. I was infused with the extraordinary brilliance and perseverance of life, even at that most horrible time. Nature, the kindness and human sweetness of other people, something you read—every day the world is waiting to invite us in to the wondrous and beautiful, and we can say Yes to those invitations, even in the hardest, most anguishing moments of our life.
And finally, I’d say that thriving and not just coping means listening closely to our own inner voices and how they compel us to respond to life. There are opportunities every day, many of them, not just to receive that kindness and beauty but to give it. To say thank you to the person working in a supermarket, to tell your friend something you really appreciate about them, to volunteer for a cause you believe in, to pick up litter on the street. Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are also a thousand ways to give beauty, and we can do that no matter what we’re going through personally.
DOUGLAS: Trebbe, thank you for sharing this time with me. We have revealed together some deep and salient points as we each work to heal the world along with our own hearts this day.
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love (from MaMuse)
May this hour open for us all a window through our grief and loss into the depth of human care and connection. May love continue to lead us into the ways of truth and grace.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Health of the Self
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This past week Gallup polling released results from its annual ‘Health and Healthcare’ survey which it does every November since 2001. In this poll, Americans are asked to report on their own mental or emotional wellbeing. You could say your mental health is “excellent, good, only fair or poor.” Since the onset of this polling, the results have been rather consistent, around 85% of respondents rating themselves either Good or Excellent. The range over the years has gone at high as 89% and down to 81%. Until this year, of course, when the numbers dropped to 76%.
This is not a crisis. But it is a notable variation in an otherwise rather consistent trend. It’s like the whole world is sad and stressed. The obvious culprit in this scenario is the CoVid-19 pandemic. People are feeling constrained and uncertain about the future. There are financial concerns and health concerns weighing heavily on people’s minds – which exacerbates one’s sense of mental wellbeing.
The analysis of the polling results gets even more interesting when you notice some of the demographic subgroups and how they responded. Nearly every subgroup saw a decrease the number of people reporting themselves to have excellent mental or emotional wellbeing: both male and female, Republican, Independent, and Democrat, married, non-married, white, non-white, all the age ranges and income brackets. The news is that women dropped by more points than men – but women dropped 10 points while men dropped 8. (A notable exception is the political affiliation, but remember the survey was done just after the election last month so Democrats dropping by a small number and Republicans by a larger number is easy to interpret.)
In general, the trend is that across-the-board fewer people report their mental and/or emotional wellbeing as good or excellent. There is one additional anomaly in this report that I’ll come back to in a few minutes. But let me first ask:
How are you doing? This has been a rough year. Would you say your mental and emotional wellbeing is excellent or good? Would you rate it as fair or poor? How are you doing?
Me? I would not rate my mental health at Excellent or even Good this year. It has not been a good year for me. It has been good in the past – I think most of the time I have served as minister to this congregation my mental health has been good. But this year my mental health has been fair to middling with bouts of awful. I have been struggling mightily this year with depression.
I tell you this for two reasons – and neither of those reasons is that I need you to take care of me. I have my colleagues and friends; I have my family and my medical professionals to support me. I mention my own struggle not because I need you to fix me or save me. I am getting the help I need.
Instead, I mention my own struggle with depression for two reasons in particular. First, to serve as a witness. You may be in a bad spot yourself. Mental illness has a weighty stigma clinging to it. In her book Stubborn Grace, UU minister Kate Landis talks about how religion in particular would in the past (and in some corners still today) equate mental illnesses with moral failings or displeasure from god. To this day, people bury their shame and hide in secrecy rather than reveal something like the struggle I’ve been in. So, I bear witness. This is hard enough without adding secrecy and shame to the mix. You may be struggling with a mental illness. You are not alone. God is not against you. Your faith community can be of support to you.
The second reason I mention my own struggle is for acknowledgement. You may have witnessed me these past nine months stumbling now and then; and you may have thought to yourself, ‘he’s not doing well.’ I share my struggle to acknowledge what you may have wondered about. You were right. Part of what happens in my depression is I drop important things, I forget things, I get exhausted and can’t follow through on things. So, I offer this as acknowledgement. I’ve been working on ways to overcome these difficulties. I have some tricks and strategies to keep up with it all. If you’ve been concerned, I want you to know you have a good eye, trust yourself, thank you.
And, if you have not been concerned – if you had no idea how much I have been struggling, don’t feel bad, I am very good at hiding my struggling. I am working on not hiding so much. I’ve been working on not hiding for years. I shared with key leaders and staff what I’ve been going through a couple months back.
And if you are wondering about your own mental wellbeing, I encourage you to find support. This is not a time in which to deal with difficulties alone.
There is a snippet of a song I find keeps returning to me – it is from a music ensemble called Silver Mt Zion. https://soundcloud.com/ifnotnow/when-the-world-is-sick-1 “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” Such a compelling statement, an indictment, and acknowledgement, and a calling back into our better natures. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.”
The whole world is sick right now. The Covid-19 pandemic obviously, but in other insidious ways as well. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” And when the world is sick – how much harder it is for you to keep your head up and keep yourself in a positive frame of mind. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” We are not going to be stuck like this forever. We are going to round this bend, we will turn this corner, the planet will swing on its axis and the sun will shine more again, and it will happen soon – sooner than you expect. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” This too shall pass.
If you find you need a little extra support right now, a little more than you usually do to get through, by all means, reach out and connect. Now is not the time to hide or to push through on your own. Because I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.
Something turns the ache and pain around, or at least frames in within a context of hope. Something else is happening beyond just this pandemic, beyond just my depression, beyond the suffering you and others experience. Something else is also going on. Something leads us to dream we are beautiful and strong, leads us to become more beautiful and strong.
There is a delightful little surprise in that Gallup pole I mentioned at the beginning. The poll said that everyone is feeling a little worse off than last year. Some demographics are less bad, but everyone has lost ground their self-assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. Every demographic except one. There is one subgroup that actually gained ground, one subgroup whose numbers increased from 2019 to 2020 in their assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. It is the category of people who attend religious services weekly.
This is like finding an article that says people who eat a lot of cheese live longer and I eat a LOT of cheese so I would send copies of that article to all my friends and family as proof that I’m going to be okay. (Except in the real example it is about going to church rather than about eating cheese, so I probably still need to cut down on how much cheese I eat. But that’s a topic for another sermon perhaps.)
Over this past year, people who attended a worship or prayer service weekly showed an increase how many of them say their mental wellbeing is good or even excellent.
In her book Held, Rev. Barbara Meyers talks about the value of religious community in healing and recovery, in mental wellness. She says
“People heal in relationship to other people, and acceptance in a community where their presence is honored and where they can be honest about the mental health challenges they face is central to recovery and to living with their situation.” (p23)
In her book, Meyers lifts up the Eight Dimensions of Wellness. Included in the list of eight, as you might expect, are emotional and spiritual wellness. The list also has social, intellectual, and environmental wellness; along with physical, occupational, and financial wellness – which some may see like a stretch. But when you think about it: if you do not have physical or financial wellness, you are more susceptible to being unwell emotionally or spiritually. Mental Illness resides in our brains and as such, effects our entire being.
And week after week, we here in this congregation talk about bringing your whole self to the experience of worship. We talk about needing to nourish our intellect as well as our spirits and our emotions. We talk about service – physical and financial ways to help the world around us. We are a community of healing. Our faith communities are not therapy centers. Instead we are centers of hope and humanity. We are not medical professionals. We are simply communities of caring people. Who better to heal the broken than those of us who are also broken?
There is an old and deceptively light book entitled, The Gospel According to Peanuts which is brimming with wisdom. In one strip, Linus is sitting there, eating his sandwich, and he becomes absorbed in his own hands. “Hands are fascinating things.” He says, “I like my hands, I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character.” His sister Lucy looks up with a puzzled expression while Linus goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works…. They may build a mighty bridge, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” And then he turns to Lucy with a flourish saying, “These are the hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy looks at his hands, looks up at Linus, and says, “They’ve got jelly on them.”
But we’re the only ones here to take care of each other. We all have jelly on our hands. Annie
There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth—only us… unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been. – Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (1977)
We are a congregation of jelly-fingered people, of struggling lovers of life, of brokenly half-woke wanderers trying to find our way through to the next day. And the way we are going to make it is by helping each other. By shining God’s love on one another’s woundedness.
Over the years of my own journey with depression and as a witness to the journeys of others with various other mental illnesses, I can tell you that our congregations save lives. Our congregations serve as centers of hope and simple humanity. We spread the message that God is not a bully counting our sins and ready to fling us into punishment and suffering. The world is not rigged, we declare, it is not designed for catching us in mistakes.
When we falter, when we slip, we are here to help each other. Do not hide your sadness or your pain, we are here to help each other. That’s the amazing thing about this or really any religious community that is doing the work of the spirit – however that manifests. We are God’s hands, helping each other to rise again. Our hands, our jelly-covered, broken, grief-stained hands are the hands of grace in a world of heartache.
How are you doing? Are you holding on? I need you to hang in there. I can help. Me? I’m better than I was earlier this year, but I’m still kinda battered. But I know how we’re going to make it through. I’ve seen the kindness and the care that runs like a golden thread throughout this community. I have witnessed the grace. I have experienced our healing. And I have dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.
In a world without end
May it be so
May the salvific simplicity of friendship surround us
May the grace of God’s love pour over us and through us
And may all that hinders and isolates us be hushed
in strength of that simplicity and of that grace.