The Blessing in the Breaking
Rev. Douglas Taylor
A colleague from an earlier generation, Elizabeth Tarbox, has a story she tells which she calls “The Teaching Bean.” (from Evening Tide 1998; by E. Tarbox, p 15-16) When she was a child her step mother gave a lima bean to her and to her sister. She showed the girls how to set the bean in wet blotting paper, how to set the paper in a jar, how to set the jar on a windowsill in the sun. She told them to watch the bean over the next days and weeks.
A little later that morning, Elizabeth snuck back up to the window, removed her bean and “polished it up with a bit of furniture polish.” And then she put it back in the jar. She writes, “It was all shiny now and smelled much better than my sister’s bean.”
Over the follow weeks Elizabeth witnesses her sister’s bean swell and send out a white root followed a sweet green shoot arching up out of the jar. Soon, her sister’s jar was a mess of roots and shoots and the bean was ready to be planted. Meanwhile, her own bean did very little beyond getting a bit wrinkly and eventually shriveling up to fall to the bottom of the jar. After a while, she just threw it away.
Reflecting on this experience, Tarbox writes:
“How often have I covered things with furniture polish to make them shiny, to make them smell better? How often in my life have I cared more about the way things looked, and how they smelled, rather than how they really were? I spent half a lifetime covering my feelings with the emotional equivalent of furniture polish, thinking that if I looked good and smelled good the ache inside would go away.” – The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox
I know something about that ache. I am familiar with that urge to cover up and hide the messy parts of my life. But real life is messy and a little smelly. It’s okay. In fact, it’s better when we let it be a little messy and a little smelly. It’s worth it. Because amazing things can arise from places in our lives that are messy and flawed and broken. Elizabeth’s bean remained perfect and pretty until it shriveled up and fell to the bottom of the jar. But her sister’s bean smelled bad. Her sister’s bean broke – it formed a crack and a small tendril of life emerged.
Like Rev. Tarbox, many of us were trained by our society to try to be perfect, to pretend to have no flaws, to fit in – or at least to stand out in only the most expected and acceptable ways. We have not been enculturated to honor our cracks and breaks, our failures and mistakes. The lesson in the song Japanese Bowl by Peter Mayer is a wisdom we usually stumble upon later in life. Too often, we have to unlearn the dream we were fed that a good life, a happy life involves the image of perfection. Too many of us grew up trying to be perfect, while our neglected messy spirits were left to shrivel up and fall to the bottom of the jar.
But fear not. Unlike a shriveled bean, a shrivel spirit is not beyond salvage. Elizabeth Tarbox continues her ruminations on the lessons she learned from that bean. She writes:
“But spirits are not like beans, thank god. They may shrivel with neglect, but as long as life persists there is the chance to wash off the polish and redeem the growing thing inside.” – The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox
A chance, she tells us. There is always a chance to redeem your spirit and break open anyway. Today, let us give thanks for the ways our broken hearts and broken spirits have held unexpected blessings for us, openings through which life and light may find its way.
Carol Mikoda’s piece about “Listening” which we heard in the readings reminds me of what Elizabeth Tarbox’s bean is trying to teach her. Mikoda urges us to listen. “You might hear its message, meant for you, about being brave, about breaking off the coatings applied over the years for protection.” And we can do the hard work of peeling back the layers of polish and shielding, that we may uncover our broken hearts once more.
Many of us have tried to be successful, accomplished, cool, independent, self-sufficient, and on occasion – perfect. We thought it would make us feel happy or at least make other people think good things about us.
But perfection is a trap. It tempts us with the self-destructive belief that if we just try harder and become better, we will be able to avoid the painful experiences of shame and failure. And worse, when we are unable to be perfect, we mask our imperfection rather than embrace it. We hide and cover up, lie and deny the messy truth about who we really are.
I suppose there are people in the world who do not learn from their mistakes. People are messy and complicated beings. Some folks can’t see their own faults and flaws, and thus can never work to overcome them. They never admit to being wrong or needing help. And they end up living small and limited lives. Perfectionism is destructive. Embracing your mistakes and flaws, your beautiful brokenness, will set you free.
In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohan calls us to “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
So, go ahead and be broken. It won’t make you feel better, necessarily. But it will set you free. Being broken doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It just means you are able to grow. The bean that breaks, that splits open, is able to send out the roots and tendrils of life; able to grow. There is a blessing in the breaking. There is a secret power that can only be found in failing or falling apart. From the crack, a new thing can arise. You can arise. A deeper, truer aspect of yourself may emerge from the broken mess. Because that’s what life does.
Now, I am not suggesting you go out and start breaking things or aim to fail. I am not encouraging us to stop trying to be better people or stop working hard for something worthy of our efforts. All I am saying is to not despair for the mess we are in. Part of the brokenness is what comes after the break. Part of the brokenness is the blessing that can be uncovered as well. The brokenness is not the important part of this whole thing, our response is.
And I am not trying to say we can slap a silver lining on everything. What I am saying is we should not pretend the storm clouds are not storm clouds – because in seeing them for what they truly are, we can look past them to what truly matters. What I am saying is we do better when we speak the truth of our situation rather than pretend all is well. From the truth – the messy, uncomfortable, sometimes painful truth – there is then room for growth and forward movement.
By acknowledging the brokenness, by incorporating it into our identity and the story we tell about ourselves, we shift the story from ‘the brokenness’ to ‘the ways in which we have overcome the brokenness,’ to the blessing that arose from inside the crack, to whatever came next in the story.
I have spent more pulpit time this election cycle on the dire concern for our continued democracy than I usually do. In general, I am not a very political preacher. But we are living in distressing times and there is much that has been broken in our civil society. What I am striving to do is speak the truth, to not hide or conceal or pretend the problems away. Instead, I long to declare with L. R. Knost that we ought not be “dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended.”
And so it may be with your heart or your spirit or whatever that bean from our story would mean for you. It is broken, but there is still a way to mend it. Mending is what we do.
Our children’s story today was a version of the concept of creation in Jewish mysticism – Tikkun Olam. God’s love is shattered into countless pieces and scattered across creation. Our job, as co-creators, is to keep bringing the pieces together, to gather in the shattered bits of love.
The next time it feels like something bad has happened, or something precious has broken, try this: grieve. Feel the loss, don’t pretend it didn’t happen or it didn’t matter. Grieve. And speak the truth about what it was and what the failure or fracture has meant to you – to us.
Then, watch. Healing doesn’t just automatically happen. Yes, it is a natural process in us, we do heal – but it is not always automatic. As other’s have said, time does not heal all wounds. Love can heal most of them, over time. But that will always be a messy and complicated love – so it won’t ever heal perfectly.
What I suggest you watch for, in the midst of your brokenness, is the unexpected opening for life that can appear. It is not going to appear if you polish your bean to pretend it can look and smell better than it really does. But it will appear if you step back and let the messy failures be what they are. And remember, the happy ending that may come won’t be perfect. The blessing that may come won’t fit you and your hoped-for life in the most wonderful way.
Consider this pandemic. This has been a hard time. People have died and people are suffering and there is much for me to get angry about. The truth is important here; grieving what has been lost is important here. But our response to it all is where the blessing will be found. Our response has been to learn new ways to help each other, new ways to keep in contact, to find life-giving meaning emerging now that would not have emerged in this way without this great fracture in our lives.
And we, unlike Elizabeth’s lima bean, can always have that polished washed off. Our spirits, thankfully, are always ready to thrust out that thin and delicate tendril of life. We, blessedly, can heal from the fractures and mistakes of our days. Perfection has not yet ruined us. We can still reach for the bright and lasting light, gather in another piece, bring ourselves and our world a little closer to wholeness – one piece at a time.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Whither the Nation
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This was a close election. It should not have been close. Outgoing President Donald Trump attacked his rivals; he attacked vulnerable citizens and minorities, he attacked science and truth, he attacked the foundational institutions of our democracy. And the race was close. He attempted tyranny and almost won. Donald Trump is done, but the thread of indecency he brought to the surface in our nation is not done.
I have heard a number of people from the liberal end of politics making conciliatory sounds, calls for the Democrats to be gracious winners. And I have heard other liberal voices calling for the country to not jump so quickly for reconciliation. I have heard many saying now is the time for healing, calls for liberals and progressives to not gloat or be rude to political opponents. And I also hear voices calling for a stronger and bolder rebuke of those who sought to destroy our democracy and tacitly supported that hate.
In short, I have heard that we are not done. Voting is one part of the work. That part is done. Howard Zinn once said “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” The voting is done. We have a new administration waiting to take the reins. And the deeper work has now begun.
In March of 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the following comments about President Trump:
He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified & reanimated.
Our president, Donald Trump, has multiple times over the preceding week declared himself the winner of the 2020 presidential election. That is not something a democratically elected president can do. Not only that, it was an obvious lie, meant to stir up his base and I believe to potentially incite violence. Abusers don’t make good losers. And President Trump has long displayed too many of the traits and behaviors of an abuser for us to ignore what he is doing now.
The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you are leaving. President Trump has signaled several times that he would like his para-military followers to resort to violence as a means of keeping him in power. Yes, the voting is over, but our work is not done.
Mr. Trump is attempting to shred the foundational principles of democracy in our country – the trust in our election process, the truth in media reporting, the decency of civilians to share in this democracy. I certainly have my own political opinions and views, but what I’m talking about this morning is deeper than the difference between parties and partisan perspectives. I am not against Republicans this morning. A few weeks back I preached a sermon titled “My faith is not fascist-friendly.” We can be Republican-friendly, but Unitarian Universalism cannot be Fascist-friendly.
Consider the reality that Donald Trump is not really a Republican. I would love to have some old-school, fiscally responsible, states-rights, pro-business Republicans running the Republican party again that I can argue with. But there is something happening among the Republicans of today that was not at play for the Republicans a generation back. Trump is not a Republican. He ran on the Republican ticket, but there is almost nothing of the core values and platforms of Republicanism that Trump supported and pushed through during his time in office.
But guess what? Modern Democrats are not really Democrats anymore either. Young people voting as Democrats are really Progressives longing for a platform far more to the left than the basic liberal Democratic platform. This whole election has been about people stuck in the Republican vs Democrat mindset, desperate for something different. This is, perhaps, that ‘tragic gap’ Parker Palmer spoke of – that gap between the suffer we experience of present reality and the hope we continue to cast for what could yet be.
And perhaps this was not very obvious because of the way this election season unfolded. It was not driven by policies or party platforms or positions on issues in any way. Donald Trump put out exactly zero policy initiatives for his second term. Joe Biden put out a policy platform which was ignored and had no practical impact on the national conversation. This election was driven by identity, not policy. This presidential election was a referendum on our identity as a nation. This weekend, we heard that character matters, the character of the nation and the character of our leaders matters to us. Yes, it was a close race, and in the end, decency matters.
And here I want to caution all of us against thinking we are the good guys in this story. This is about us. This is not about some mythical ‘them.’ We are Americans and America has always had this ugly story of division deep in our identity. America was founded as a paradox of both freedom and slavery. We were created in the out of the near-genocide of American Indians and the bold expansion of adventurers and explorers. The tension is painful at times. The mix of pride and shame is explosive. But this is not about ‘them.’ It will always be about ‘us.’ This is America.
The tragic divide we’ve experienced this election season and during Trump’s term in office is not new. It is baked into our American identity. That’s what I mean when I say this election had little to do with policies and partisan platforms, and almost everything to do with identity. Who are we as a country? And do not forget that it was a close race. This was not a resounding rebuke of the racism and attempted tyranny, much though I wish it could have been. Yes, we landed in the camp of decency, and it was a close race. So, we still have work to do.
Whither the nation? Where do we go from here? How do we move forward? The healing I hear us calling for will come. It will be tempered by the truth and by our compassion. Reconciliation will not happen by pretending we did not just experience what we all experienced. But neither will it come without a determined choice to move forward together.
We will focus not on the outgoing president. Some people will need to focus on him, lawyers perhaps, journalists I suppose. But we can turn our attention back to matters of consequence. Because we have work to do to heal our nation.
Take a deep breath with me.
Let me share with you a small set of ideas that can serve as a guide for the coming months. Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, offers five habits or attitudes that we need as a democracy. The five habits are these:
An understanding that We Are All in this Together
An Appreciation of the Value of ‘Otherness’
An Ability to Hold Tension in Life-Giving Ways
A Sense of Personal Voice and Agency
A Capacity to Create Community
Whither the nation? Let me spend a moment unpacking this small set of ideas to give us guidance for this time. In short – the answer is to focus back on our deeper moral principles as a people; to lean into the identity that was revealed in this election.
We are deeply interconnected and interdependent. This is what Palmer listed as the first of these five habits. We are all in this together. For our democratic republic to continue to function, “we” needs to really mean “we” – all of us. As my colleague Theresa Soto has said, “All of us need all of us to make it.” We can’t move forward divided.
But Palmer’s second point is that while we are all in this together, we are not all the same. We are each unique, and amazingly different. And our differences are part of what makes our country beautiful. And it is true we tend to gather in like-minded and like-hearted sub-groups, to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ clusters – that doesn’t need to descend into competitive acrimony. Parker Palmer reminds us that ‘us and them’ is fine. It is when it becomes ‘us vs. them’ that we have trouble.
Well, this, of course leads right into the third habit Palmer offers: an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Embracing differences while still finding our unity is a tension. Promoting personal agency and working toward creative community is also a tension. America is an extended exercise in holding tension – but you know what? So is Unitarian Universalism. Yes, it’s hard, but it gets easier with practice. And it does take practice. It takes work to hold tension well.
The fourth and fifth habits in Palmer’s list are dramatically revealed in this recent election. One vote is just that. We each cast our ballot. But the agency of one vote is lost without the context of the community. We need to be actors in the ensemble – participants in the full drama of life.
This is an elegant set of five habits. The first two are complimentary: we are united and we are different. The last two are also a complimentary pair: We must be strong individuals and we must build strong communities. The middle one is simply the glue – we must be able to hold creative tension in life-giving ways. There is actually a lot of overlap between these habits Parker Palmer offers and the Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles.
The way forward for us as a nation is through a set of habits that we Unitarian Universalists have been practicing at for a long time. The habits of holding tension as pluralism, of promoting individual agency while also building community, of honoring our differences while focused on our unity.
We are certainly not the only religious community doing this sort of work, but it truly is our bread and butter as Unitarian Universalists. And I’m not suggesting this is therefore something easy. The way forward means we need to speak the truth about who and what has been hurt, threatened, and endangered. And we must stay with each other as we figure it out together – because “all of us need all of us to make it.”
In closing I want to offer you a few words from a sermon I delivered four years ago. This was the sermon I preached the Sunday after Donald Trump was elected president. I preached about our principles of conscience and integrity. I called us into that difficult space of defiance and compassion and faith.
Gandhi has written:
“A principle is a principle, and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to live it in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate, and hard.“
[Thus, I went on to say four years ago] Even in bitter defeat, I am committed to love.
Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us into a difficult place. We are called to reach out across even these acrimonious differences, to resist the urge to demonize those who have been political adversaries, to treat all people with respect, to do our part to heal the wounds of our day and bring more peace.
And we are also called to challenge hate. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and covenant call us to take the side of the poor, the marginalized, the disempowered, and those treated with injustice and cruelty. We are called to get in the way of systemic injustice, to stand up against tyranny, to agitate the establishment for change so that all people can heal from the wounds of our days and we can all experience more peace.
The way forward from this election season [I told us four years ago] is a paradoxical path that is the hallmark of our faith. We must act with both open-handed reconciliation as well as steadfast dissent. Gentle and resolute – I will not harm you, but neither will I stand by if you harm or threaten to harm others.
Here we are now, four years later on the other side of that experience. And this is what we need to do: keep faith with our messy democratic process. Keep fighting for truth. Keep vigilant against the outbreak of violence. And stay true to the underlying principle of Unity to which we aspire as a people.
May grace and mercy go with you through the days and months ahead. We’re on a new road now; mind your step. Stay safe out there. Look after each other.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Do You Hear?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
As we heard in this morning’s reading – we hear what we want to hear. And sometimes, our preconceived notion of what we expect to hear gets in the way of what is actually there to be heard. (How does bias affect how we listen? by Tony Salvador)
Jesus had a pattern of ending his parables with the phrase “you who have ears to hear, listen.” He was essentially saying: you all have ears – use them. Pay attention. But he was also suggesting that there is another way to listen, if you are willing to put in the work. Because sometimes we have obstacles that get in the way of ‘hearing’ and understanding.
Let me pause here at the beginning to acknowledge the ablism in our language. Our vocabulary is saturated with analogical references to our senses as if everyone has full access to their sight and hearing, with the reverse suggestion that a disability indicates intellectual deficiency. Do you see what I am getting at? Do you see it? You hear what I’m saying? Sometimes I can’t stand it. Do you under … stand?
I am not going to spend this whole sermon unpacking our language as if we are terrible people who need to stop talking. Instead, I am going to deconstruct what is behind all this language. I am going to talk about how we take in information about truth and reality, how we make meaning out if it, and what gets in the way.
Let me start with the story of magenta. Actually, to do that, I need to first start with the story of yellow. I trust that you are all familiar with the basic concept of color as a function of the wavelengths of light. When we look at the rainbow or at white light that is refracted through a prism, we see the distinct colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. And there wasn’t a vote about putting them in that order. This wasn’t about an artist centuries back who set convention for the colors to be in that order. No. They are in that order based on physics. Light has a wavelength as it travels; and by the rate of the wavelength we get the different colors. That’s physics.
So, let me shift for a moment to biology. Our eyes receive these photons/waves of light and we have specific types of light and color receptors – rods and cones in our eyes – that then send the signals to our brains so we can see color. We have three types of cones for color vision: red, green, and blue. (It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but it’s a close enough description for the purpose of our story this morning.)
All the color we see is based on the blending our brains make from the input received through our eyes – through the three color-cones that receive the photons of light entering our eyeballs.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a sermon? It sounds like a high school biology class!” To which I say, “Bear with me. This is going to be really cool.” At which point you’re probably like, “Okay. This is Douglas, he does like to take us on little stories to make an interesting point. Keep going.” Thanks. I’m going to keep going.
So, we have three kinds of color receptors in our eyes, but we all know about the spread of seven different colors in the rainbow. That’s not even to mention shades of the same color. (My wife keeps telling me a blue shirt and a blue tie don’t go together if they are not the same blue.) So how do we see all the different colors when we only have three kinds of color receptors? The answer is: our brains are amazing at blending sensory information into coherency.
Take yellow, for example. We don’t have a photoreceptor cone in our eyeball for the color yellow. But we still see yellow. Yellow does have a distinct wavelength frequency; but technically, we can’t see it. Our brains receive the wavelength information from our red and green cones and interpret that information as yellow. In fact, most of the colors we see are blends and interpretations. So, yellow is not all that remarkable. (Interesting side note, there are some animals, such as goldfish, who have yellow cone receptors.)
But hold on to your socks while I tell you about magenta. (Here is a pair of very interesting articles on this topic. https://medium.com/swlh/magenta-the-color-that-doesnt-exist-and-whyec40a6348256#:~:text=Magenta%20doesn’t%20exist%20because,it%20substitutes%20a%20new%20thing. And https://arstechnica.com/science/2009/02/yes-virgina-there-is-a-magenta/)
The color magenta does not have a distinct wavelength in the spectrum, but we still see it. You remember how the top of the rainbow is red and bottom is violet? What color do you get when you blend red and violet? Fuchsia, or magenta, or some other name we call that mix of red and violet. Today, let’s just use magenta. On the color wheel – an equal mix of red and violet produces magenta. But color in physics is not a wheel, it is a spectrum with red at one end and violet at the other.
Our photoreceptor cones receive this information with corresponding wavelengths for the different colors. Red’s wavelength is wide, violet’s wavelength is narrow. They don’t meet, they don’t blend. There is no wavelength for the color magenta. Magenta doesn’t exist. And yet, we see magenta. So, magenta does exist. (Ta-da) Science!
Let me now tell you why I took us all on that long geeky science ride. Our brains are amazing. They look for patterns, fill in gaps, and make interpretations. The Bluebottle Butterfly has 15 different kinds of photoreceptors. They don’t need to fill in a lot of gaps. Their brains don’t need to work extra hard at interpretation. Their eyes have 15 different types of photoreceptors; we have 3. Our brains have to work hard to figure out what we are seeing. And our brains are very good at this.
If you zoned out during my little digression into eyeball biology – the short version is this: the world out there is filled with things to sense and perceive. Our eyes take in a certain, limited amount of this information. And then our brains find patterns, fill in the gaps, and produce an amazing interpretation of the world around us.
The part I want to focus on this morning is the way our brains find patterns. We do this in so many ways. It is not just with our eyeballs and color, not just the physical world revealed to us through our senses and through science. We’re also talking about how we understand social and political issues like the economy or systemic oppression. It is about our spirituality and faith. It is about our values and convictions and hope. The world out there is filled with things to experience. We take in a certain, limited amount of this information. And then our brains find patterns, fill in the gaps, and produce an amazing interpretation of the world around us.
Some people say the thing that most makes us human is that we make & use tools or that we are rational or that we love. I can hear an argument that what makes us most human is that we tell stories; we see patterns and discern meaning out of what is happening around us, and create stories about it. We are meaning makers. Even if sometimes we make it up. Like magenta.
We can make meaning out of the thinnest set of information – we see the patterns and reach conclusions. Again, this isn’t just the physics of color. This is about falling in love and reaching for justice. We have experiences, we look for patterns, fill in the gaps, and find meaning. Think about why it is sometimes good and sometimes not good to be so good at seeing patterns that may or may not be real. Like magenta.
I was reading an article by a nutritionist with a passion for how we form habits. Chris Sandel, in his piece “How Our Mind Fills in the Gaps,” (https://seven-health.com/2017/04/how-our-mind-fills-in-the-gaps/), writes this:
“…it makes sense to our brain to make assumptions or connections. These are shortcut ways for us to understand the world and not be overwhelmed by information. Basically, beliefs help us to quickly and easily make sense of the world that we live in.
And if we think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it helps to explain this even more.
Imagine you are an early human living in nature. You’re walking around the forest and hear a rustle in the bushes. From a life or death perspective, it makes sense for us to make the connection that a rustle in the bushes equals a dangerous predator.“
He goes on to talk about how we became so good at committing what are called ‘false positives.’ If you assume the noise is a predator and it is not, that’s a false positive. But you still survive that situation. Right or wrong, you survive if you respond as if the danger is real. If you ignore the pattern, don’t make the connection, fail to respond as if it is dangerous – and it is; then you do not survive. Evolutionarily, our species passed down the lesson to lean into ‘false positives.’ So, as a species through the ages, we look for patterns and respond accordingly.
Sandel says, “This is known as patternicity … the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data.”
So, what is the fix for this little glitch in our systems? How do we resolve the problem of only hearing what we want to hear? How do we deal with it when our preconceived notion of what we think we heard gets in the way of what is actually there to be heard?
I hope it is no surprise to you that my answer is: listen. It is good to check in with yourself regularly. “Is that real?” What is the evidence? Am I hearing only what I want to hear? Am I really listening?
We see meaning in the patterns, that’s what we do. We find stories of importance in the meaningless and meaningful data. What patterns are you seeing? Is there really a God? Am I falling in love? Did that person just say something racist? Is Antifa really is a socialist plot by the Deep State? Are we on the road to becoming a fascist nation? Why don’t dogs and cats get along? Is magenta even a real color?
Jesus said, you who have ears to hear, listen. In this hyper-polarized political season, what stories are you uncovering? What evidence supports those stories? Is it real? Maybe it is. Last week, I made the point that truth matters. Today I am saying, be skeptical. Am I repeating myself or contradicting myself?
Take the time to stop every now and then to be curious about your beliefs, about your convictions, about the stories you tell yourself about who you are and who some other people are. Be curious about your stories. They may be true. Truth has never suffered by doubt. Truth rises when we let it. And there is always an element of interpretation going on in the mix. Like with magenta.
And if this is overwhelming, if there is just too much coming at you and your three simple photoreceptors – remember you can step back and just focus on one thing at a time. (Like we talked about in the Time for All Ages)
Our faith tradition has always been open to doubt and skepticism. We are a curious people. Stay curious. Strive to stay open to challenges about your preconceived notions, and the patterns you think you are seeing. Our world is made of stories. Let us be mindful of that part of reality as we work to build the Beloved Community.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
My Faith Is Not Fascist-Friendly
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Our Fifth Principle reads: We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote … The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
While this is not the only UU Principle applicable for today’s topic, it is certainly our starting point. Several times over the years I have stumbled upon a conversation that essentially asks ‘why is the democratic process included in our list of religious values?’ The answer, really, begins with the first part of that fifth principle which leads into a commitment to the democratic process as a natural and logical consequence. The fifth principle begins the ‘right of conscience’
The ‘right of conscience’ began for both the early Unitarians and the early Universalists as a religious commitment. Essentially, throughout our religious history, we would make statements about God’s love or God’s unity or professions of faith concerning various doctrinal matters; but throughout that time, we always kept a commitment to the freedom of conscience. This meant, if you did not believe the same as everyone else in the group, yet felt you were in the right group anyway, the group would not use that difference as grounds to ask you to leave the group. If you were in sympathy with the aims and doctrines, you were welcome.
This first part of the Fifth Principle leans very heavily on the Fourth Principle. “We… affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The way we know truth, discern meaning, get guidance on what is important is this: we search for it. It isn’t given to us, it isn’t dictated unto the people, it isn’t set out for all time, for all people, in all situations. Instead, we each search for truth and meaning.
A person’s faith cannot be coerced. Each person’s experience of life and of faith is their own. Heed your own conscience. No one else can dictate for you what you have experienced. In the past we called this the ‘right of conscience.’ In today’s language you might say we are against religious gaslighting.
But if that were all we said, we would not be a congregation. We would be a bunch of individuals who may or may not have anything in common and who may or may not interact with each other. Like my Facebook Friends list. But, instead, here we are. We are a congregation. Ah! That’s why there is more to the Fifth Principle than simply affirming and promoting an individual’s Right of Conscience. A commitment to the Democratic Process is the natural and logical outcome of a community rooted in the Right of Conscience.
Our work, according to this Fifth Principle, is to be individuals in community. This leads us to make some conclusions about how we govern ourselves, how we reach agreements together about matters of importance. We have declared that the governance style that allows for the greatest individual Right of Conscience is the Democratic Process. We practice a form of self-governance.
Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote in his 1858 sermon that “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” Abraham Lincoln’s law partner was present at that sermon and brought a printed copy of it to the president. It is presumed this connection lead to the phrasing in the Gettysburg Address in 1863, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
I don’t mean to imply that our idea of religious ‘right of conscience’ is the source of our country’s form of government. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee deserves that credit. What I am trying to point to is the parallel between our United States form of government alongside our modern Unitarian Universalist form of government – and, more importantly, the values undergirding both.
We value the democratic process as a function of a healthy religious practice, and a healthy civic practice. That’s a part of our faith tradition.
Now, perhaps you can see where I am headed with this. I am not going to tell you who to vote for in the coming election. I am not going to tell you who to not vote for either. I certainly have some opinions on the matter, but that’s not how our faith community works.
I won’t pretend we are a big glorious mix of political opinions here. I won’t pretend that our liberal and progressive spiritualities don’t shape the political and social make-up of our demographics. I won’t pretend that, in practice, there isn’t pressure to vote in a particular way in our congregation. But a deep piece of what I have been saying for the past few minutes is this: you need to think for yourself and reach your own conclusion. For us to be true to our values as a community, we must keep that commitment at the front.
So, while I will not tell you who to vote for, I have no compunction telling you our faith calls you to vote. Our faith should not be diminished into serving as the religious version of one political party or another. But it does – unequivocally – espouse the same values that uphold the political practice of democracy as a whole.
So, what happens when the election includes the possibility of our democracy slipping into an autocratic dictatorial regime with hints of Fascism? I will tell you that our faith is not Fascist-friendly. I will not tell you how to vote, but I will warn you of forces at play that are bent of undermining our democracy.
Throughout the 20th century, Europe has had “three major democratic movements: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989. Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed.” Timothy Snyder, in his small but well researched book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, claims those European democracies failed “in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own.”
Fascism is a form of government that according to the dictionary “stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” (Merriam-Webster) Every step of that definition is antithetical to our way of faith and to the civil practice of democracy. Historically, Fascism is epitomized by Mussolini’s Italy; although Hitler’s Nazi Germany is modeled on Mussolini and is what most Americans think of when presented with the term Fascism.
In her book Fascism: A Waring, Madeleine Albright suggests that within each of us resides “an inexhaustible yearning for liberty,” and contradictorily, “a longing to be told what to do.” This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is our reality. We long for liberty and we yearn to be told what to do. We are best served when we find balance between disciple and creativity, between rules and liberty. Especially in times of chaos and fear, the clarity of a commandment can be deeply calming. But our faith has never called us into easy and calming answers. Unitarian Universalism has a long religious and social history of rejecting the comfort that may come from ‘being told what to do.’
Our faith is not Fascist-friendly. We do not look kindly on those who would use violence to enforce obedience. We take issue with leaders who are cruel, petty, and belittling of those who are different for the sake of nationalistic or racial pride. On principle, we side with compassion, equity, and respect over against those who sow distrust and disharmony with deceit and divisiveness. Our faith is not Fascist-friendly.
Am I saying we are in danger of slipping into fascism? I do not think we are there yet, but we are on that road. “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.” (On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder; p9) I confess, I see a lot of the marks they warn about happening around us in this country.
So what can we do about this? Other than the obvious – be sure to vote – what can be done? It is not enough to be armchair critics, or perhaps today we would call that online critics. The reason I have framed this conversation in the context of our Unitarian Universalist faith and values is to help us focus on what we can do rather than on what is going wrong.
Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny, has several suggestions including some simple, direct actions an individual can undertake such as: “Make eye contact and small talk” and “Investigate.” Doing research in a time when facts and truth are slippery can be a powerful way to stay grounded. Suppression and regimentation are harder to accomplish when people know their neighbors. So, do a little extra research and take the extra effort to interact with people around you. He also lists actions such as “Be wary of paramilitaries” and “Defend institutions.” Paramilitaries are a signal that violence can be outsourced to unofficial, ‘secret’ groups – so don’t brush off concerns about terrorist-like activities of militias. And in a democracy, we thrive by our institutions such as the free press, the impartial courts, labor unions, and open elections. Pick one and defend it. Our democracy thrives by our institutions.
And take heed of the list of questions from madeleine Albright about the people who want to be our leaders. “Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed, or party as unworthy of dignity and respect? Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process? Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism – the flag, the pledge – in a conscious effort to turn us against one another?” Reviewing Albright’s questions can reveal warnings about the beginnings of Fascism.
We should not wait until Fascism is undeniably entrenched. Freedom must be defended – and I don’t mean defended with guns; I mean defended through engaging with our deep values of truth and respect, participation and compassion. Our faith is rooted in the Right of Conscience. We have formed community around the desire to protect and encourage that religious freedom, and by extension, all freedoms.
I began my sermon with one of our seven UU principles – the Fifth one that speaks specifically about democracy and the right of conscience. But really all our principles lift up values that run directly counter to the means and ends of Fascism.
Our Second Principle outlines our obligation to act with compassion and to seek justice. Our Seventh Principle is our recognition that we are a part of the universe, not separate from it with special authority over certain parts of nature. Our Third Principle is a commitment to accept and encourage each other. Our Fourth Principle is a declaration that we will think for ourselves. Our Sixth Principle is a call for freedom and justice for all people. Our Fifth Principle is a yearning to bring all voices to the table, to share the power. And our First Principle, simply and elegantly, is a promise that all of this applies to everyone.
And in the end, do your own investigation on this. Don’t take my word for it, think for yourself. Go ahead and disagree with me. But don’t get stuck on that. Instead, act. Engage with the issues. Live in your integrity and your conscience. Be part of the progress of our nation as we grow into a better community.
In a world without end
May it be so
Rev Douglas Taylor
For two years, 2016 and ‘17, Kenny Wiley ran a series in the UU World magazine that was a contest of sorts with brackets like a March Madness sports thing, but the question was ‘what’s the most UU thing?’ Instead of sports teams, the brackets were more than a dozen things like ‘lighting the chalice’ and ‘singing Spirit of Life.’ Both years, it came down to those two in the final heat. And both years Spirt of Life lost to the Lighting of the Chalice. It was a bit of fun.
This past spring, my colleague Rev. Kimberley Debus took that idea and focused in on just hymns. The goal was to winnow it down to the top UU hymn for the year. It was actually a fundraiser where each dollar was a vote for the hymn of your choice and the money goes toward the development of a new hymn resource Kimberley is creating about our hymnal https://hymnbyhymn.org/donate/. I mention all this to say that when people claim Hymn #123 Spirit of Life is THE UU HYMN, there is empirical evidence to back up this claim.
And (sorry it has taken me so long to get around to my actual point) the hymn is written as a prayer. We call on the Spirit of Life to influence our lives. That’s what the hymn is saying. And it is interesting to me that this faith tradition of our that can be a little wary around the topic of prayer, loves this hymn so much. It is like our UU Anthem.
The author of the hymn, Carolyn McDade, clarified in an interview in UU World, that her aim was to write a personal prayer, not a denominational anthem. McDade said the circumstances surrounding the writing of that hymn begin after a meeting for Central American solidarity, one of the many social justice issues McDade worked on in her life. She was driving her friend Pat home after the meeting, she explains:
“When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.”
McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. “I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.” https://www.uuworld.org/articles/carolyn-mcdades-spirit-life
It is a prayer. It was not meant to be a hymn, but a sung prayer. Rev. Debus describes it as a “request for support, for rest, for renewal, for perspective.” “Spirit of Life, come unto me.” It is amazing to me to have seen Unitarian Universalism, with its academic, heady focus and iconoclastic, anti-religious-language bent, fall so utterly in love with this sung prayer. UU Binghamton not the only congregation to sing this hymn most Sundays for well over a decade.
So, I started looking through our hymnal with an eye toward prayers. I, again, was amazed at how many of our hymns are also prayers. Brin Taylor from the choir will sing a verse from one of these prayer hymns.
There Is More Love (SLT #95)
There is more love somewhere.
There is more love somewhere.
I’m gonna keep on ‘til I find it.
There is more love somewhere.
There Is More Love, #95 in our hymnal. This hymn is hauntingly beautiful. It speaks of a longing for, and a trust that there is, something more. It is a lament. True, it doesn’t specifically have the grammatical formula of a prayer. There is no deity named or holiness invoked. But this is definitely a prayer. It is an aching recognition that what is happening right now is not good; a change is needed and a change can happen. It is a non-theistic prayer.
There is a version of this hymn that offers a re-writing of a verse. Folk music does this a lot. The revision says “There is more hope right here.” It says, we’ve found it, we have hope. “I’m gonna keep on ‘cause I’ve found it.” Tis hope will carry us. And that small change turns the song from a lament into a song of praise. Which is very different.
I don’t know how many of you pray. Prayer, as I’ve said, is one of those practices that we are a little shy about as Unitarian Universalists. Our clever skepticism can get in the way of such a practice. But when you are having trouble, this hymn in its original lament form may be just the thing for you. It is an imploring for things to get better. But it is still a stretch because it also affirms a trust that things can get better. There is more hope somewhere.
There is more hope somewhere
There is more hope somewhere.
I’m gonna keep on ‘til I find it.
There is more hope somewhere.
Three years ago, Brin and I led a service together about music. In that service, Brin offered this wisdom:
Pitch. Rhythm and meter. Melodies and phrases. Timbre. Words and lyrics. These are all elements that make up music. Each one individually affects our emotions and our bodies in different ways. … Each of these elements can have an emotional effect on a person, and, through this emotional connection, you can find meaning. https://douglastaylor.org/2017/10/22/sound-of-spirit/
Music gets into our brains and our awareness in a different way. When we sing together or listen to music, our brains take in that sensory information differently than if the same words were simply spoken. Music connects with us and integrates us.
I remember a church musician telling me we can say things in the choir anthem that the congregation would never be comfortable hearing in a sermon. Our communal prayers are like that as well. A prayer is not a statement of theology, it is a way of communicating that slips into us in a different way. And a sung prayer has a special kind of power for us.
Our next hymn is an old one. It can likely be found in every Protestant hymnal in the country. It is a stirring piece about hope and faith and comfort and death. Our hymnal has 3 of the 8 verses from the original. Becky Greenstom from our choir will offer two verse of hymn #101 Abide with Me.
Abide with Me (SLT #101)
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; still with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist Church with a strong thread of humanism. This hymn, for example, is not one that I remember hearing in church. Others of you – I am sure – have rich memories of this hymn being sung. It comes out of the Christian tradition and even the verses we have in our hymnal still carry tones of that theology – yet it is muted enough to not be jarring, and for many it is familiar enough to be comforting.
I will add, I find it compelling that the text does not say ‘save me.’ It doesn’t say ‘change this terrible situation I am in.’ Instead it says ‘abide with me.’ Be with me, be present to my suffering and my coming death.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changes not, abide with me.
Our varied Unitarian Universalist theologies resonate with this way of facing death, and with this way of offering a prayer. We are not asking for there to be no sadness and no death. Instead we ask for the strength to face it, the presence of a holy companion that we be not alone at the end.
In some ways, these prayer hymns gain some power for us simply by our familiarity with them. Abide with Me is not as powerful for me because I did not have it in my life until more recently. What are the hymns for you that offer you comfort through both the sweet and sad memories you have associated with them? What are the hymns whose lyrics may not fit for you any more, but you are not willing to let go of them as precious to you?
Perhaps, over the years in our congregation there are some hymns that show up in our services that have begun to be true and comforting songs in your heart. Many of them are prayers. A bunch of them are not, of course. But perhaps a surprising number of them are prayers.
Spirit of Life, Nearer My God to Thee, All Creatures of the Earth and Sky, Amazing Grace, Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire, Hush, Over My Head, I Know I Can, I Know this Rose Will Open, Lift Every Voice and Sing, How Can I Keep from Singing,
This Is My Song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
… and on and on the list goes. Our hymnal is filled with dozens of hymns of prayer.
Maybe you are someone for whom prayer does not connect, it is not a practice you do. Maybe you are someone who does not sing or does not enjoy music in that way. But I know all of us, at one point or another, have been troubled, have needed guidance or support. Every one of us, at some point along the way, has wrestled in discernment about how to do the next right thing. For those times, perhaps one of our hymns may offer guidance or clarity, or simply a bit of solace. That’s often enough.
This last prayer song has long been on my short list of favorites, when I am allowed to have more than one. It is one I find to be utterly beautiful in lyrics and melody. Heather Sheridan from our choir will sing hymn #86, Blessed Spirit of My Life.
Blessed Spirit of my Life (SLT #86)
Blessed Spirit of my life, give me strength through stress and strife;
help me live with dignity; let me know serenity.
Fill me with a vision, clear my mind of fear and confusion.
When my thoughts flow restlessly, let peace find a home in me.
Spirit of great mystery, hear the still, small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion, be the source of my intuition.
Then, when life is done for me, let love be my legacy.
Then, when the whole show is over, when my time is done, let it be for love. Let it be, O Spirit, love that shines through our last hours and indeed all our lives. Let it be love that outlasts us all.
In a world without end,
May it be so