Sermons 2021-22

Widening the Circle

Widening the Circle

Rev. Douglas Taylor

February 6, 2022

“This is the world I want to live in.” the poet tells us. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate 4A” is a simple piece relating an encounter, an utterly normal interaction among strangers at an airport gate waiting through a flight delay. Utterly normal, I say – and yet not common enough. Nye describes the world she wants to live in as a place where people are not apprehensive to share cookies together. That doesn’t seem beyond our reach. And yet … This experience of meeting people without walls of suspicion or fear does not come as easy as we would think.

It is a world within our grasp, a possible future of inclusion, of beloved shared reality free of bigotry and division. Nye says it is the world she wants to live in. It is the world I want to live in as well.

It is the world our faith calls us to create together. We Unitarian Universalists have ‘Beloved Community’ threaded through our diverse theologies. We have compassion and inclusion woven into our principles and our mission statements. We say God is Love, and all are welcome, and there is no bar separating us from the holy, and everyone is kin. We know the world does not actually work that way and so we are called to bring more justice, to refuse hate and division, to bind up the broken, to be allies to the downtrodden, to make the Beloved Community a little more true today than it was yesterday.

There is deep history in our chosen name as a faith tradition; but beyond that we can also say as Unitarians, we are one – a unity of who matters in this life. And as Universalists, we are all headed together into the brightness of the coming days. We are one and we are all included. Others draw circles to shut people out and we – we are called to widen the circle.

And even as I say this, even as I declare these lofty statements of our calling, even as we speak of widening the circle, I am sure you have noticed, have felt the opposite happening around us.

This pandemic has shrunk our circles of connection. Many of us lament the circumscribed living we are experiencing. Yes, love demands we care for the health of our community, I am not suggesting we stop being careful. But the reality of this pandemic has curtailed our widening work of late.

We were open and in-person for a few months this fall. But with winter, we again suspended all in person gathering for a time. It is likely we will cycle back open soon, and it is also likely we will at some point again close. We don’t know for certain, but we if we are to keep both our commitment to health and science as well as our commitment to live out our calling, we will need to keep being creative in how we do this. And so our circle of attention has shrunk

This pandemic time has been hard on our social activism, for example. We have not had as many rallies and public events since the pandemic. It is hard to organize a people who can not gather together in person.

It has also been hard for visitors. It has been hard for visitors to get a hand hold among us. We’ve had some staff transitions and we’re not paying attention the way we used to. It is hard to do the welcoming work we used to be pretty good at when we are online.

This has also been difficult for long-term members. Many of our elders and others who have been around a long time to stay connected online. It is a different kind of work to stay connected online. It is hard to feel heard, to feel valued.

Our circle has shrunk. It has been hard to DO things with this pandemic. There has been loss and isolation in this time. It is hard to not feel disheartened by this. It feels like we are not living up to our great calling to widen the circle and our mission as a congregation. And in the face of that, it is hard to not judge our community, my leadership, our faithfulness as a people when we see how we have not been widening the circle lately. So what are we going to do?

Let me tell you a story. I saw a short video recently that got me thinking. In the video, jazz musician Herbie Hancock is talking about an experience he had over 50 years ago when he was playing in the Miles Davis Quintet. The group was playing a set and (Hancock says) at one point he played a chord on the piano, and it was just wrong. It sounded bad. But there they were, live on stage playing a jazz set. He thought he had just ruined the piece, ruined the whole night.

But Miles just paused for a moment, listening, and then played a few notes on the trumpet that rescued the music, fitting the chord into what was happening. Herbie Hancock looks out at us in that video and said, “He played some notes and he made my chord right.” He said it took him years to figure out how Miles had done that. Here’s what he figured out: he said, “I judged what I had played. Miles didn’t. Miles just accepted it as something new.”

He said the gift of a good jazz musician is to take anything that happens and work it into something of value.

A wrong chord is not the end. A wrong chord or a mistake is not the last word on the matter. In religious life we say something similar – “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.” God is not done with what we are going through. The spirit, the holy is still moving through every situation, even this one we are in the middle of right now.

So, what’s next? There are so many things that can happen next! A mistake, a wrong note, a bad situation, is not the end of the story. Ever!

What’s next? It can feel like this pandemic is like a massive boulder that has landed in our path, in our otherwise clear and perfect path forward! We were chugging along, we had a building renovation, we were hosting a series of interfaith meetings in the community, we were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, we had some great youth and young adult ministry going on, we were looking to expand our partnership with a community meals program across town, we had plans! And then this boulder landed in our path. Now we have to deal with the boulder in our path. And it seems like dealing with this boulder is all we can do. Yet try as we might, we cannot push this boulder out of our path, we can’t force this pandemic to go away.

What’s next? What notes can we play to make this chord right? I don’t have the answer to that. I am not the Miles Davis of the liberal church. I have been listening and playing what notes I can. I know many of you have been doing so as well! We’re not going to turn it around in an instant the way Miles could. But when we think of the other metaphor – the boulder in our path – maybe we can imagine how we keep trying. We keep working on it. With persistence and imagination, we can find a way. This is not about the response of a few quick notes played in the moment. This is going to take some longer work to deal with this boulder.

So we ask: Can we work with this boulder? Can we build around it? Can we climb atop it to gain perspective? Can we decorate it? Can we learn it’s story? Can we use its strength? Can we incorporate even this boulder into the landscape of our loving?

I am convinced we can still live our mission and our calling with this boulder in our path. And I’ll tell you why.

It’s because we know we are not the only ones who feel like we’ve had a boulder land in their path. We are not alone with this feeling of frustration and isolation. This pandemic has hit us all. And – here’s the important part – this leads us to empathize with the difficulty and suffering of others. Our experience leads us to widen our circle of concern and care. If we will let it. This is how we deal with the boulder; we see it has landed on everyone.

The refugees fleeing Afghanistan’s horrors and seeking an opportunity to live without fear and the threat of violence in our country have experienced this pandemic’s boulder and so much more. We can be part of the community of people offering help to the refugees.

The communal trauma wrought against black lives in our country and the systemic racism haunting and harrowing so many aspects of our society can be overwhelming. We can become allies and anti-racists together to witness for a better way forward for people of color in our country and for us all.

The countless people living one medical emergency away from bankruptcy in our country and all those who have already suffered that particular injustice are drowning. We can step up as advocates for a more just and fair medical insurance system. And we can partner with those seeking to directly support people suffering in this way right now.

Homelessness and hunger are real problems in our county. Antisemitism is alive even locally. Hate crimes and violence against women, against our LGBTQ siblings, and against so many others need to be countered with messages and actions of love and acceptance and justice. We are well positioned to offer those messages and those actions because that is our calling and our mission as a faith.

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!

-Edwin Markham

We are called to widen every circle we are in; to reach for those on the margin and draw them into the center. I get it that doing that is hard right now. I get it that this pandemic has shrunk our circle rather then widen it. But that is not the last note of the song, that is not the end of the story. Yes, we have a boulder in our path. But we can pause and listen to the chord that sounds wrong, hear the discord and respond.

Friends, I offer you these stirring words and miss having you all here in the sanctuary with me. Consider the impact you’ve felt being excluded from this sanctuary over these past few weeks, and before during the early part of the pandemic in 2020. You didn’t play a bad chord and yet still you are impacted by circumstance. This sanctuary has been closed to you. This small example of exclusion we are experiencing leads us to empathize with others who are excluded.

This space, this room is an important part of our identity as a faith community. It is our sanctuary, the place where we come together, where we laugh and pray and think and hold sacred silence together. It has been hard not being together in this space.

As I stand in here alone this morning, I imagine you all here. I remember your presence. But in a way, this emptiness makes it a little easier to call to mind all those who were occupied this space in the past. All those through the years who came into this space before you and I were here, they too laughed and prayed and thought and held silence together. The walls hold that memory, even renovated and changed, the walls and rafters still hold the echo of those who did occupy this space before.

And before this space, they occupied other buildings. They echo through the years into our time. Our ancestors hold this space for us while we are not able to be here. And they tell us to keep working on that boulder. They had struggles of their own. This is not the first difficulty the congregation has ever faced. This is not the first time we have felt our circle shrink instead of expand. It wasn’t the end of the story then. It is not the end now.

Our predecessors knew the calling. Room had been made for them and they widened their circles over their time to welcome others in, to reach out to those in need, to serve their calling. Those who went before are with us still, echoing in these momentarily empty halls. They whisper down to us – push against the circle, they say. Widen it! Do not be confined! They say, break it if you must, but let everybody in! This is the world I want to live in.

Widen the circle and make it wider still. This is the call of our faith; this is the charge to us from those who tended this faith before us, and also the longing of those yet to come. Widen the circle, and make it wider still. Until all the world can see and know that we are one and we are all included.

“This is the world I want to live in. … Not everything is lost.” And we are all loved.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Long Live the Kind

Long Live the Kind

January 30, 2022

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/ZpGb6l3gQu8

My colleague Keith Kron relates the following story early in his new book What Really Matters:

            “Sir!” I had just entered the grocery store a few minutes before closing, and when I turned around there was a young African American man rushing toward me, holding something. “Are these your keys?”

            They were. “Thank you,” I said.

            “No problem, sir. They were in front of the store. They must have fallen out of your pocket when you hurried in.”

            When would I have noticed? I had been trying to get out of the cold, too stubborn to put my gloves on and regretting it.

            “Let me give you something,” I stammered, realizing what it would feel like if my home and car keys were lost.

            He smiled and shook his head. “It’s nothing. Anyone would have done this.” He dashed off before I could say, “No they wouldn’t.”

            I was left standing there, grateful for this thoughtful teenager, who made my night a lot less anxious than it might have become. I won’t forget his smile either as he handed me my keys before leaving. In an age of incivility, little acts like this young man’s go a long way.                   (p 23)

Kindness is always worth it. Of course, you are not going to find anyone in our community to argue against being kind. Kindness is one of those virtues all agree to be of great value. As renown author Henry James has said: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Firefighters in Florida responded to a call about a man who had a heart attack while mowing his lawn during an extreme summer heat wave. After the paramedics attended to him and rushed him to the hospital, several of the firemen stayed behind to finish mowing the lawn and cleaning up the man’s yard.    (A Year of Living Kindly, by Donna Cameron; p17)

I was reading a book a few months back entitled A Year of Living Kindly by Donna Cameron. Cameron’s premise was that the world could use more kindness and she set out to be a kinder person. She blogged about it, to publicly help herself keep this commitment, for an entire year. Every day, she worked at being a kind person on that specific day. No falling back on, ‘oh I was nice to the cashier last week and that’s my evidence that I’m a kind person.’ Every day required some action for her. I came of age in the ‘80’s, so the slogan by Anne Herbert, “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” really resonates for me.

In the introduction of her book, Donna Cameron writes:

It sounds simple, and it is simple … but it isn’t easy. We don’t always pay attention to our lives; we often act out of habit or in instant response to a perceived insult or provocation. We all have our own insecurities that propel us to act in ways that aren’t always compassionate (or even logical.) We get tired, we become impatient, we grow fearful… Let’s face it, we’re human. (p12)

In short, the author discovered that while we all value kindness, in general people respect and admire kindness in others, but it is not easy to be kind all the time. Oh, how that resonates for me more than I care to admit, except that I just admitted it.

It is simple but it is not easy to be kind all the time. It takes attention and intention to keep being kind each day. But it can be something we practice and develop in ourselves. It was Martin Kornfield who said, “If we all do one random act of kindness daily, we might just set the world in the right direction.”

As today’s worship associate, Karen Marsh sent me an article https://healthyhumanlife.com/blogs/news/being-kind from her research about some studies linking kindness with happiness. So often we talk about how being kind is something we do for others, but there is a benefit to the one who is kind. Studies show that being kind is good for your heart, it boosts your immune system, even slows the effects of aging. There are several studies about something that has been called the “kindness feedback loop” which essentially reveals that kindness makes us happy and happiness makes us kind. One specific example from the article:

Studies show that acts of kindness can ease social anxiety. In one study, college students who had scored high on a social anxiety assessment were separated into three groups. Researchers asked one group to engage in three acts of kindness a day, two days a week, for four weeks. They asked members of the second group to simply try to be more social with people, and members of the third group to keep a diary of their social interactions. By performing random acts of kindness, members of the first group experienced positive interactions, decreasing their fear of negative interactions and their social anxiety overall.

I suspect one of the impacts of doing acts of kindness is that it helps us practice gratitude. We practice helping others and we end up being grateful that we are in a position to do so. It helps put our lives into perspective.

My colleague Rayla Mattson is a religious educator in Hartford CT. She and I met in a conversation about an animated TV show we both love called Avatar: The Last Airbender. I recently stumbled across this piece she had written about kindness that I found both nuanced and moving.  https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/kindness-others      by Rayla D. Mattson 

My youngest child, who is autistic, has taught me so much — and yet there are times, like our morning bus routine, when her autism causes me anxiety. We have to wait for her bus for up to twenty minutes on a small strip of grass on a busy road, and I have to be very creative to keep her not only entertained but out of the street. (I wonder how many people we entertain each morning.)

One day last month, [this was written about 4 years ago in 2018] a white woman pulled over and ran over to us with a shopping bag. She said she sees us every morning and is so moved by my obvious love and adoration for my daughter that she felt compelled to do something kind for us. She noticed that I never have on a coat and I often stand in the rain. She didn’t know if the things would fit, she said, but the receipt was in the bag. She smiled and drove away.

As I looked down at the bag, I had very mixed emotions. I have a winter coat, but my worn-out sweatshirt is comfortable and too bulky to fit under my coat. I stand in the rain because umbrellas cause anxiety for my little one. Did she do this because I’m black? Why did she feel I needed these items?

I put my daughter on the bus, went inside, and found a note in the bag. She said she’d wanted to stop now for weeks. She was a single mom who had struggled for years to raise her boys. She didn’t know if I needed anything, but was drawn to me and my daughter. The note said to return the items and get what I wanted if I didn’t want what was in the bag.

My eyes filled with tears. Amid these racially tense times and political unrest and horrible acts of violence we see almost daily, she just needed to do something nice for someone. Seeing my daughter and me every day reminded her of the good this world has. I think she needed that connection.

… I sent out a blessing for her to the universe and held on to the notion that there are those of us who want to reach out to others; who believe that there’s goodness in the world, and want to find it. And I am grateful.

My colleague writes “She just needed to do something nice for someone.” We often use the words ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ interchangeably. And it is a remarkable compliment to say someone is a really nice person.

But the distinction we sometimes draw between the two words in not unfounded and is worth noticing. In our reading https://gratbook.com/give/difference-nice-kind-conversation/ this morning, Oliver Johnson wrote: “The warmth of being kind will overpower the pleasant positivity of niceness every time.” I would only caution against always hearing ‘nice’ as something less than ‘kind.’

But it is true. The world ‘Kind’ has its etymological roots in the word ‘kin.’ It describes a virtuous quality at the level of character. One definition of the adjective ‘kind’ is “deliberately doing good to others.” The word ‘Nice,’ on the other hand, seems to be rooted in appearance, precision, and agreeableness. It can also rise to ‘thoughtfulness,’ which is a more recent etymological development.

One blogger https://yaholo.medium.com/stop-being-nice-start-being-kind-ff6177464131 put it like this:

“Being kind to someone means that the only thing on your mind is another person’s well-being when you act. Kindness means that you do something for the benefit of another, without needing a return or payback. Niceness is how we try to climb the social ladder, but kindness is how we lift up others.”

The call to go beyond nice is a call to be real. Kindness calls us to be real.

There is a line in our congregation’s Behavioral Covenant in which we promise to ask ourselves before we speak, “is what I am about to say true, kind, and necessary.” I remember when we were considering the language of this piece before voting to accept it as our covenant, someone raise a possible objection along the following lines: Sometimes we need to do things that would be characterized as unkind. An example offered was needing to fire a staff member.

I said then and still believe it is possible to hold someone accountable while still being kind. It is possible to navigate another person’s bad behavior without becoming mean, to hold a boundary that says ‘no’ while still being kind, while still striving for a productive outcome for everyone involved. I’ve done it. I’m not saying I have done it perfectly every time or have even done it well every time I’ve been called upon to do it – but it is what I strive for and it is possible. Is it true, kind, and necessary? Saying a hard truth or holding necessary consequences can still be done with kindness.

Our society has created this framework of sensationalizing the terrible things that happen around us, the tragedies and traumas we live through. The message seems to be that we all need to return a certain toughness, hold a bit of an edge to live well in this world. As such, kindness is offered as a ‘feel-good story,’ and extra bit of fluff – like it is a rare little something, quaint and unusual.

On Facebook yesterday I saw a man pictured in front of his truck with a snow plow attachment. The message beneath the picture said: “Any homeowner who is elderly, disabled or on a fixed income call me. I’m snow plowing for free and want to be of assistance to you.” He listed his name, what county he was in, and his phone number. This was yesterday morning.

I contend such offers of kindness are not quaint and unusual. They happen quite often and are, in fact, the beating heart of our society. We all want to be more kind. We all want others to be kind with us. It is not bizarre! It is the normal we are longing to experience during this pandemic.

So many of us are lonely and exhausted. We are isolated and overwhelmed dealing with this pandemic and the systemic injustices and societal upheaval we are living though. And yet, our kindness is not just a bit of fluff – it is how we are going to get through this.

The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” And Harold Kushner has said, “When you are kind to others, it not only changes you, it changes the world.”

Indeed, in the final analysis – kindness is what matters most. We all can strive each day to be more kind. Set your intention. Refuse the cynical decline. Reach out. Be Kind. The world needs more kindness.

In a world without end, may it be so.

The Last, the Lost, and the Least

The Last, the Lost, and the Least

Rev. Douglas Taylor

1-16-22

Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/E6ioFaalN68

There is trouble in our democracy of late. And not the good kind John Lewis talked about.

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

That is the opening couplet from the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” which we heard nearly a year ago from Amanda Gorman. On that chilly January morning, Gorman reminded us,

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

We’ve never been a perfect union, but always striving to become a more perfect union. We keep striving; we keep working to be better.

The senate is preparing to vote on the Voting Rights Bill soon. It is a bill that puts limits on gerrymandering, tightens restrictions on financial contributions from hidden sources, and increases access for voters – particularly minority voters through measures including automatic voter registration systems, fewer restrictions on mail-in ballots, and making Election Day a national holiday so working people have a better chance to participate.

It was Gandhi who said “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” How well are we doing on that count? Are we protecting the vulnerable? Are we looking out for the marginalized among us? The House of Representatives has passed the bill. It is, however, expected to die by filibuster in the Senate. The vote has been put off until this coming week, hoping perhaps a few more senators discover their moral backbones.

In his 1957 speech “Give Us the Ballot” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered this searing analysis of the situation back then on how the federal government had rendered itself impotent on the issue of voting rights back then. 

This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.

And here we are again 65 years later, the landscape is changed, but the issues continue. And democracy remains in trouble for us today.

As a faith community, Unitarian Universalists are committed to the principle of democracy. For decades we have included democracy in our official statement of religious identity: Our Principles and Purposes. The wording in the 1960’s of our original merger principles says we “unite in seeking … the use of the democratic method in human relationships.” Later in the current version from the 80’s which we still use today, it says “we affirm and promote … The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

In short, we see the use of democracy not only as a political issue. For us, it is a matter of moral importance as well. Free and fair voting access is the foundational aspect of a functional democracy. It was Susan B. Anthony who declared that, “Suffrage is the pivotal right.” This matters to us politically as citizens and this matters to us morally as people of faith. We recognize that religious interest must include moral interest in the workings of the nation.

As professor Samuel Thomas said https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/let-justice-roll-down-like-waters-amos-5–6 in our reading about the prophet Amos this morning: “Religious devotion is meaningless if it is accompanied by unfair taxes on the poor, backdoor bribes, and working against those in need.” In case you wonder if Thomas is exaggerating or reading in to Amos what is not actually there … he’s not.

Here’s what prophet Amos said more than 25 hundred years ago (Amos 5:11-12);

You levy a straw tax on the poor

    and impose a tax on their grain.

For I know how many are your offenses

    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes

    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

It is important to give access to the means of change to all the people. So, while there are those in power now attempting to suppress access and deny a voice to the marginalized among us, we do well to remember that our faith, and indeed many of the faiths represented in our nation, call us to do the exact opposite. Our faith, and indeed the faith of many in our nation, calls us to care for all the people of our nation, not just some.

My title for today’s sermon is a reference to a series of parables in the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a direct line from American politician and voting rights activist, Stacey Abrams. Abrams was part of the 2021 Ware Lecture this past summer. The Ware Lecture is an annual prestigious event at our UUA General Assembly. The shared lecture this summer focused on voter suppression and voting rights. Abrams talked about her work helping people get vaccinated. She talked about how the people she tended to be helping were the “last in line to receive support and the first in line to receive punishment.” She noticed how often her constituents were the last, the lost, and the least.

Abrams spoke stirringly about growing up with the lessons her parents gave her and her siblings. She said her parents said the children had three jobs – “go to church, go to school, and take care of others.” She and her siblings were regularly serving at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and prisons to help those in need. Her parents would remind them that no matter how little they had as a family there was always someone else with less and our job was to serve whoever had less: The last, the lost, and the least.

In chapter 20 of Matthews’s Gospel, Jesus declares “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This is paired with the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). A little earlier, in chapter 18 Jesus said, “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying?” This parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14). Then a little later in Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:40-45) with the character of the king proclaiming: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ In the span of a few chapters of this gospel, the message arises again and again. The message that we are to care for the last, the lost, and the least. The message that God cares for them and we are do care for them as well.

I am aware that among traditional interpretations and conservative interpretations these parables are often used to speak of God’s judgement rather than of God’s love. There are interpretations of these parables I just listed saying that God separates the saved from the unsaved, that a death-bed conversion after a life of callous oppression is okay, and that leaving the conformity of the herd is considered a sin in need of saving … but those are just interpretations, and when reviewing the fullness of the message I believe the power of love is a better guide than the power of hate. It matters what we use to guide our interpretations of scripture. I lean strongly in the direction of love.

For example, pastor and blogger Mika Edmondson wrote:

“In Matthew 25, Jesus describes true converts as being marked by a peculiar empathy toward the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated. But he describes false converts as being outwardly religious but marked by a peculiar callousness toward the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated.”

That is an interpretation I can work with. We are called to take care of each other, to build a society in which we all can thrive, not just some, but all. We are called to denounce the idea that some people are disposable or unworthy. The last, the lost, and the least ought to be the barometer of where we spend our time and attention. We are called to be marked by a peculiar empathy.

What does this all mean for us today, here in our little Binghamton congregation? What are we to do with this call to include all voices, to have empathy for the people on the margins? “Think globally and act locally” is one answer. Yes, there is a lot at stake with the Voting Rights bill this week for the senate, but you and I are not senators. Our work is a little different. We can certainly agitate for change at the highest levels, but we can also be the change right here in our own lives and in our own neighborhoods.

During her Ware Lecture this summer, Stacey Abrams offered an insightful reframing of the dynamic at play. Where most of us, from a certain privileged perspective, see the poor, the marginalized, and the incarcerated as “the last, the lost, and the least.” She saw them as “the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.” She pushed us to see them not as lowly people in need, but as those with whom we could partner – the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.

Her suggestion that they are powerful is only accurate from a certain vantage point. But the other two qualities are resoundingly accurate. The poor and marginalized people of our nation are prayerful. That is often quite true. But I was most struck by the third attribute on Abrams’ list. Consider her assertion that they are our protectors. She said she saw them as “the prayerful, the powerful, our protectors.”

I suspect Abrams finds her time serving the Last and the Lost and the Least to be work that protects her. It protects her from growing callous, from growing jaded by the politics of the job, from losing her soul to the systems that strive to keep privileged people from caring about the poor. In this way, the vulnerable are our protectors. 

Over the years I have preached a message about how we can use our privilege to serve justice. I have also preached a message about our brokenness – mine and yours – in the face of the difficulties of the world. We are called to be marked by a peculiar empathy. We are called to see our neighbors in need as ourselves, and to love them. Not because we are better than anyone else, we too are in need after all. But many of us have certain privileges that help us weather the storms of life. In service, we step closer to one another. In service, we are protected from feeling better than others. In service, we share the dream of “a nation that isn’t broken/ but simply unfinished.”

On that brisk January morning nearly a year ago, young poet Amanda Gorman reminded us of our goal, reminded us of what our nation can be when we live into our promise. (from The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman, January 20, 2021)

We will not march back to what was,

but move to what shall be.

A country that is bruised but whole,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free.

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation,

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain,

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy,

and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

For that, my friends, we need all of our voices and all of our beautiful diversity to be better together as a nation, as a people. In service, we will climb this hill together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Anger – A Field Guide

Anger: A Field Guide

Rev. Douglas Taylor

1-9-22

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/JyIrS9k7KDM

We are approaching the completion of the first year of Joseph Biden’s presidency here in the United States, and the news cycle is reporting about how our country is more divided today, politically, than it was a year ago. https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069764164/american-democracy-poll-jan-6

There is a staggering number of people firmly convinced that those on the other side of the political aisle are trying to destroy our democracy. People are angry. This is made worse, in my opinion, by the fact that part of the reason for this political anger among us is due to the succuss of a big lie about election fraud. This lie has been refuted and disproven clearly and repeatedly, yet the lie continues to hold sway, as does the anger, which makes me angry.

Meanwhile, this pandemic continues to rage through our country and through the world. We’ve had record numbers of cases in our county in the past few weeks. It is worse now than it has ever been. Thankfully, the Omicron variant is not as deadly as earlier variants. Still, we’re close to a total of 60 thousand deaths in New York State, more than 800 thousand in the country, and nearing 5.5 million deaths worldwide. We are seeing an exponential rise is new cases. I get angry at the way people believe and spread disinformation spurred by political interests resulting in this increased harm to the public health.

So, yes. I will preach about anger this month as we work our way through the anniversary of the Trump Republican’s failed insurrection. I will preach about anger as the economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots continues to yawn wider. I will preach about anger as our grossly mismanaged healthcare system stumbles to respond to this public health crisis. I will preach about anger as American corporations continue to be the largest contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions – selling the future of our planet for a buck. Yes, I will preach about anger this month.  

But I don’t come off as an angry person, do I? If you were to asked to describe me, would ‘angry’ come to mind? Probably not. I do get angry. But I don’t spend a lot of time with it. I work to move my anger along, to transform it into action for change.

Everyone gets angry at times. Anger is one of our basic emotions. We typically associate the anger with the display of shouting and yelling, maybe a red face and clenched jaw, or a clenched fist. Violence seems to be a frequent companion to the emotion of anger.

In the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out, we see Anger drawn as a red emotion that, when pushed too far, will have the top of his head burst into flames (Stick hands out and make angry face). He is voiced by comedian Lewis Black. During the opening narration, Joy introduces the different emotions in the story. “That’s Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.”

That last part is going to be true for all the ways we display our anger. Anger is connected to caring deeply about things being fair. Anger is not always about ranting and ‘blowing up.’ It is one of our basic emotions. Everyone gets angry at times. The question is not if you get angry but what you do with it when you are angry.

Most of the resources I have about anger focus on the interpersonal levels, dealing with anger among friends and family members. I suspect this is because the goal is to allow the anger to be a catalyst for change, which is easier to accomplish in our personal relationships than it is to do on the national or global stage. But let’s take a look at the interpersonal side of this conversation for a bit. I have found there are parallels and insights suitable for the kind of angers I was sharing a few minutes earlier about injustices and politics.

Our reading this morning was taken from a classic book on the topic from 1985 – nearly 40 years ago. The primary focus of The Dance of Anger by Dr. Harriet Lerner is to serve as “a women’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships.” The excerpt we heard was not focused on women’s anger in particular except in the way that the whole book is focused on women’s anger. But I tried to share a section that might be heard as useful by all genders. The dynamics of gender and anger have shifted a little over the past few decades, but I find the content still quite insightful.

In particular, the questions she encourages are important. “What am I really angry about?” “What is the problem, and whose problem is it?” And I love this one: “How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless?”

Dr. Lerner reveals the importance of listening to our anger to learn what it is offering, what message it is telling us about what matters to us. Anger is information that something is wrong. It is a signal that something needs to change.

A contemporary author agrees. In a 2011 essay entitled “Tender Anger,” minister and poet, Jan Richardson tells us:

“As with any emotion, anger can be a map. Within the landscape of our life, the presence of anger reveals where our passions lie, whom we love, what we consider important.  Anger shows us where we are vulnerable, where there are cracks or wounds in our soul, where there is brokenness within us or around us. If we pay attention to what anger reveals about the terrain of our soul, it can help us find and create the path ahead.”

She goes on to ask, “Is there a step I can take that will transform anger into action—for my own life, for the lives of those around me, for the life of the world?”

That’s the goal, isn’t it? When I get angry about something, the point is not just to yell and scream. The point is to change something. I want to transform the anger into action. But this can get tricky, yes? Punching something is an action. Violence is an action. What we want is more than any old action. We want action that will serve life. This is where this conversation turns into a sermon. We want our anger to be transformed into action that will heal and bring justice, or simply make things more fair. This is not easy to accomplish. It is spiritual work. The usual spiritual tasks are involved – decentering the ego, patience, practice, trust, and deep listening.

And it is true that anger is often a mask for other emotions that are harder to deal with, emotions such as fear and grief. When I talk about my anger at the political shenanigans, I can admit this anger is rooted in some fear for what is at risk and grief for what has been lost. And some of my anger is really just anger. When you are angry, it is worth checking in with yourself about other emotions beneath the anger.

During my first ministry, serving in a large church with two other ministers down in the D.C. area, I learned quite a bit about grief and loss. I remember one visit from an angry member of the congregation. One of the other ministers sighed when he heard I’d be visiting with this member, and said, “This is someone who gets angry a lot.  His pattern is to get angry at someone or something and leave the church. He’ll turn up then in one of the other nearby congregations for a while until he gets angry with something there and he’ll leave.” 

We met; we talked about what was going on. He aired his grievance and then began to develop a list of other grievances. Eventually, I stopped him and said, “I don’t know if I’m out of line, and if I am I trust you’ll tell me, but it seems like you’re angry a lot.” He paused a moment and then agreed with me. He said, “Before my wife died, we were a great team. I would curse the dark and she would light a candle.” His wife had died recently. I asked, “Who’s lighting the candles now?”

This member had been referencing an old Chinese proverb – “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.” The proverb inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image. Indeed, when faced with manifestations of evil, it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.  

So, what does that mean? How do we do that, how do we light proverbial candles when we are outraged at the world? How do we do more than merely curse the dark?

Feminist theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison wrote, “Anger … is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us.” She suggested that anger is a form of caring – it is a sign of our connections with what matter to us. Harrison wrote, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.” [from ‘The Power of Anger in the Work of Love’ in Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi, pp. 41-57, 1981]

If we can honor our anger as both a sign of our caring and a spark of energy to bring change, then we can transform anger from one of the negative emotions to be avoided into yet another form of love. Cursing the dark is not enough, because it is not action toward change. Lighting a candle is about using the spark of our anger to bring change. “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”

The violence so often associated with anger is about unguided anger, about anger that merely rages without accomplishing the true goal. It is not enough to just be angry. We must learn to allow our anger to serve as a catalyst for growth and change. 

In her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brené Brown tells us:

“Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

In short, it is not enough to be angry. We must allow our anger to spark change. And that is one of the hardest parts of this whole conversation. Isn’t it?

I get angry about something in part because I am not able to change it. I can’t control our global descent into climate crisis. I can’t stop other people from getting sucked into disinformation and political propaganda. I can’t solve income inequality or save someone from their own bad choices. Which heaps more anger on top of my anger because I can’t transform it into an action to make a change! … Or that is how it feels at times.

But I can control myself. I can respond – even with this anger and frustration. But not if I give my anger free rein. I have to learn to allow my anger to be the catalyst, the spark, without it becoming an all-consuming fire.

Even when we are feeling angry because we feel powerless and frustrated, we can take a breath and remember that our anger is information revealing our caring hearts, revealing what matters to us, revealing the focus of where we are called to light our candle.

To do that, first, acknowledge your anger when you have it. Trust that you do get angry from time to time and that it is a worthy emotion to have. Next, listen to your anger. It is information, a signal or map revealing what you care about, what matters to you. Check to see if your anger is masking a deeper emotion, in case there is something else you need to do. But if it really is just anger, then allow it to be a spark to lead you into courage and compassion that you may bring more love and justice into your life and the lives of the people around you.

Light a candle from that spark. Allow your anger to become courage and make the changes you need. Light the candle.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Look Again: The Obvious, Often Unobserved

junior detective | Jessica Lucia | Flickr

Look Again: The Obvious, Often Unobserved

Rev. Douglas Taylor

12-12-2021

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/6LDNgedqC1E

Tara Brach, in our reading (Blessings of a Patient Heart) talks about patience. She encourages patience as a spiritual practice leading to mindfulness.

“The Buddha” Brach tells us, “considered patience to be a ‘perfection of the heart’—one of the basic spiritual qualities that expresses our deepest nature.”

For Brach, the practice of patience leads her to be present in the moment, present to her own emotions, present to the people she is with. In our text for this morning, we heard:

“Patience is not the absence of strong emotions, nor is it the denial of unpleasantness. Patience is the capacity to feel at home, to be accepting in the face of the tension and anxiety of stress.”  

Patience, Brach is telling us, allows her to give her attention intentionally rather than to have it tugged and pulled by the whims of the moment.

But that led me to deeper curiosity: to what am I to give my attention?

It is a common spiritual practice, not only in Buddhism, to be mindfully in the moment, to prayerfully pay attention, to ‘be here now.’ Equally common is the critique of culture – certainly our current culture – leading us to be obediently unobservant.

Our consumer culture, in particular, lulls us into paying attention only to how we can fulfill our wants and desires through consumption. The 24-hour news culture clamors for us to be anxiously attentive on the edge of our seats for the next bit of news. Indeed, there are countless ways in which our attention is focused for us in ways that do not serve our spirits or our values.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes says “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Now, Holmes was surely referring to observable activities in the world around us. Brach, on the other hand, is turning her attention inward. I suggest they are both on to something and it is, at heart, the same thing. The point is that it is your attention and you ought to be in control of it.

This Christmas, a friend has asked for a very particular kind of Christmas gift. She said to us: “Please give me a copy of your favorite book. And include a note about why it is your favorite.”

My friend loves books. And she imagines she will know me a little better when she reads my favorite book. It is possible she has already read it, or would by chance some future day read it of her own desire. But for this Christmas gift practice she is creating, she will read it while looking for what I found in it. She’ll read it looking for a little of me.

I have, on occasion over the years, been given a book or a recommendation for a book by various people – some here in the room. I try to honor the invitation, but in truth I have developed some particular reading habits. I tend to read non-fiction in a bit of a rush as I prepare for a sermon or a presentation. And then I read fiction at a leisurely pace for my own enjoyment. When someone offers me a recommendation or gives me a book, I will often ask “What is it in this book that you really liked? What did you get out of it? Tell me a little about what it means to you?”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “We live not by things but by the meaning of things.” My friend, with her Christmas-book-gift request wants to learn about me and others in our circle through the meaning we have placed on certain books and stories. That is where her attention will be this season – not on things, but on the meanings of things and the relationships of the people around her.

To what are you paying attention?

I’ve recently been reading a book by Alexandra Horowitz, an author, Barnard College professor, and cognitive scientist. Her recent book is entitled On Looking: A Walker’s guide to the Art of Observation. (For the record, this is not the book I am giving my friend, but it is still a good one, if you are looking for a recommendation.)

For this book Horowitz invited a variety of individuals, experts in a diverse range of subjects, to walk with her around her city block. A geologist, an artist, a typographer, and a sound designer: she invites them to reveal to her what they experience of her city block, which she has experienced through her own daily walks of several years. As expected, she learns quite a lot about the world right outside her door that she had not noticed before.

She spent an evening walking around her city block with a man from the Wildlife division of the Humane Society. They talked about rodents and coyotes, pigeons and wild monk parakeets. So much of the city’s wildlife remains unnoticed until a critter is deemed a pest. On another walk around her block, Horowitz strolled along her city block with a professional Sound Engineer to discover sound beyond the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies – the reverberations and Doppler effects caused by buildings and alleys

I think my favorite chapter was when she took an urban sociologist for a walk. A fellow named Kent who worked at the Project for Public Spaces reveled in the way pedestrians move together through the cityscape. “We don’t bump into people,” he reported from in the midst of a tight pack of people crossing the street. The behaviors of a school of fish or a herd of wildebeest reveal rules of movement while in congestion – people have a version of that as well in the city,

Anyway, all of this, really, is about what you notice and what you don’t. As Yogi Berra quipped, “You can observe a lot by watching.” One of the things Horowitz reveals in her book is how our attentiveness can be used against us. We miss things because we are giving our attention to one thing and not another.

“Attention and expectation also work together io oblige our missing things right in front of our noses. There is a term for this: inattentional blindness. It is the missing of the literal elephant in the room, despite the overturned armchairs, dinner-plate foot-prints, and piles of dung. Psychologist have cleverly demonstrated our propensity to miss a rather obvious element of a visual scene when attending to another by asking subjects to watch a specially designed short video. In this video, two teams, dressed in white or black shirts, toss around a basketball. The task is to count the number of tosses made by one of the teams. That is the expectation: the viewers expect there’ll be basketball-tossing! They gear up to see it. Afterward, the subjects are asked for their final tally. Of course, this is not the actual question of interest to the researchers. That question is this: Did you, attentive subject, notice anything else? Anything unusual? Anything else … at all?

“Nearly half of all subjects did not. In this case, the elephant in the room was an actual gorilla – well, a person in a gorilla costume – who waltzes, right between the players, pounds his chest, and saunters off-screen. paying attention to the basketball players, we miss a rather salient (and furry) figure among them.

“Expectation allows us to miss bits of the ordinary world, not just the gorillas in our midst. Indeed, it nearly prevents us from seeing lots of things happening around us”.

pp122-3

Horowitz is referring to the Simons and Chabris “Selective Attention” experiment, 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo&ab_channel=DanielSimons A year earlier Simons did a similar video with a random person giving directions called the “Door” study. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWSxSQsspiQ&ab_channel=DanielSimons And there is a delightful one based on the old Shell Game as well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bnnmWYI0lM&ab_channel=MarissaWebb You can look these short videos up online. I’ve put the links into the manuscript so you can find them easily. These attention tricks are very clever and it can be fun to get tricked, to notice what you don’t notice.

Here is the important part, however. What do we do with this information? Sherlock Holmes says, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” (From “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”) But which trifles are the important ones? How are we to judge which bits are the important parts to notice?

I sometimes feel this frustration watching the news and then hearing a bit of analysis about a news story that essentially says – that sensational piece of news was a distraction from the real problem which the media is not reporting! I feel like I’ve been dupped, like I’m stupid. And there have been some recent political celebrities who were quite good at this sort of manipulation and distraction.

When life is like a magician waving a hand saying, “behold, nothing up my sleeve,” it can be quite disheartening to simply be told – pay attention to every little thing. But that’s the problem. We can’t possibly! It is literally impossible, biologically and mentally impossible to pay attention to every little thing. Horowitz concludes her book with a response to exactly this:

“There could be an exhaustion in being told to look, to pay attention, to be here now: one might feel put upon, as though being chastised for being neglectful. Nearly all the people I walked with – some of whom were, in essence, professional attenders or lookers – reproached themselves for not paying good enough attention.

“Do not sag with exhaustion. There is no mandate; only opportunity. Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture. But by making your way through this book – by merely picking it up, perhaps – you, reader, are in a new culture, one that values looking. The unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. Look!”                                                                         -p265

This is the part where I tell you the secret, where I reveal the solution, and direct your attention to what you ought to be noticing. But that’s just the point. Your best course is to pick your own course. And … and to check in with others about what they’re noticing as well, because life is not a competition. We can share our notes with each other.

For example, you might follow along a bit on what Horowitz has done – which is to welcome a sense of wonder back into her daily walks. As the naturalist John Burroughs reminds us, “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.” Similarly, you may prefer to follow Brach’s lead when she enjoins us into patience that we may give our attention to the inward movements of our spirits, to be wholeheartedly present with the things that matter most in our lives.

English Author Storm Jameson writes,

“There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.”

To be mindfully present to the moment, whether you are a meditating monk or a homicide detective or simply a regular person going about your day, the point is to allow yourself the opportunity to receive what the world is actually offering; to not be shuttled into someone else’s conclusion; to be open to the splendor of living, the regular possibility of joy and wonder.

Life is an opportunity. The world is arrayed before us with beauty and bitterness, wheat and chafe, the mundane and the profound. It’s all there. Life is an opportunity. Look! Seek! There is always more to discover.

I’ll close with the words we heard at the opening, words from my colleague, Rev. Kristen Harper

“Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again, To hurt again, to embrace joy, To experience unease, To discover the tragic. Each day provides us with the opportunity to live. This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last, Except…Maybe today, maybe now, Among friends and fellow journeyers, Maybe for the first time, maybe silently, We can share ourselves.”

In a world without end,

May it be so.