Sermons

Heal the World

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Heal the World

Rev. Douglas Taylor and Trebbe Johnson

1-10-21

DOUGLAS: I begin memorial services with words that essentially say we are here to mourn a loss and celebrate a life. We gather in both grief and gratitude. This morning I say this to us as well. We gather in grief and gratitude for this past years’ worth of plague. It has been one year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19, a man in the Wuhan province of China. Since then, over 1.9 million people around this world have died from this plague. We are likely to hit the 2 million mark before the end of this month, possibly within the coming week. It has been a year, and the illness continues to spread.

In the United States alone, we are adding 2k to 3k deaths to that total each day; we approach the 400,000 mark as a nation. And yet, we’ve recently experienced a turning point in the politics of our country. We have vaccines beginning to be distributed, indeed a few members of the congregation have received their first dose. Better days are coming. But we are still in the thick of it.

So we gather this morning in mourning. We gather in grief for what has been lost and in gratitude for the great turning we are experiencing. On balance, there is much for which we can be grateful. But before we tumble too quickly into that sigh of relief, let us pause together to acknowledge our losses and our grief. This has been a rough year.

As Trebbe shared in the announcements, her organization Radical Joy for Hard Times is hosting a Global Day of Mourning to commemorate a year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19. In connection with that, I’ve invited Trebbe to share this sermon with me as a conversation. We will take turns asking each other questions over the next few minutes, circling around this theme of grief and gratitude in the pandemic.

TREBBE: This topic has been on my heart for a while now, and I am so glad to be a part of this conversation. I want to start with a question to you first:  

Douglas, what’s it been like to be a minister during the pandemic? What about the challenges of Sunday services online? What about pastoral care? Did you give memorials or weddings or naming ceremonies that couldn’t be done or had to be done in some other way? And all this while we are creating a new building!

DOUGLAS: On March 22nd we held our first 100% online streaming worship service. I titled that sermon “How to Stay in Touch without Touching.” I reminded us on that Sunday morning back in the spring that our core as a faith community is not found in a shared belief but in shared values. One deep value that is like a golden thread for us is the value of connection. And this pandemic has hit us right at the heart of who we are a faith community together. I also reminded us of an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And I encouraged us to slow down that we might go together and go far.

Since that time, I have struggled with some aspects of this ministry in a pandemic. I was initially thrown by the difficulty of preaching when everyone is on mute and my screen is focused on the manuscript rather than your faces. It has felt like preaching into the void. It helps to imagine you all listening. It has grown easier with practice.

The other significant challenge has been not being able to visit the sick and people in nursing homes. I have relied on a ministry of presence and have struggled with how to keep connected with people who are in nursing homes and under COVID-19 restrictions.

On top of that, this pandemic reactivated my depression – which, as I talked about last month, tends to lead be into believing the worst about myself and my capabilities as a minister.

By the fall, most of that was under better control. I was on medication, I was more familiar with the ways we could use Zoom in worship, and I discovered many of you were also reaching out to each other – keeping in touch in this time of no touching.

You asked, Trebbe, about rites of passage and I note that the very last event we held in person at the Presbyterian building was the memorial service for Heda Libby on March 15th. I have officiated at other graveside and funeral services as well as an outdoor wedding since then, and each has been strained by the difficulties of the pandemic, each has been adjusted or modified to allow for some of that we need to do while allowing for the reality of health and safety precautions. None of us are untouched by this pandemic.

Trebbe, what challenges have you faced over this pandemic, what losses and changes in your work have occurred?

TREBBE: The biggest loss for me, of course, was that my beloved Andy, my husband died. He didn’t die of COVID, but of advanced liver cancer, which was diagnosed just five days before he died. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to stay at the hospice facility with him, to do ceremony with him, and talk about what it meant to him to die. And he went without regret, remorse, bitterness, or anger. He was ready, and that was quite beautiful. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath.

To be perfectly honest, there have been many times during this pandemic when I’ve also been grateful that I’m a natural loner, an introvert. I think it’s been much easier to be isolated than it has for those who are extroverts and depend on the company of others for their energy. But I must say I have missed physical contact a lot, especially after Andy’s death, although I still talk to one or two friends on Zoom or on the phone every day even now, five months later.

Because I’ve been thinking and writing for decades about the relationship between grief and beauty and joy, I think this pandemic has expanded my sense of compassion. I often feel like the stories of countless others are kind of hovering in a place in my consciousness that is somewhere between imagination and memory. The combination of my grief over Andy’s death and that widening sense of the suffering of others is what prompted me to create a Global Day of Mourning. 

Douglas, tell me, what does it mean to you to grieve?

DOUGLAS: Growing up in an alcoholic home, strong emotions were frowned upon, anger and sadness were like weakness in some ways – at least that was the unspoken message I’d picked up. So I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life figuring out how to be appropriately angry or healthfully sad. One clue I keep returning to over the years is that such emotions are rooted in love and fear.

“Sorrow comes where love abides” is a phrase I say in the benediction of most memorial services. Our grief is borne of our love, and sometimes of our fear that the love is gone, never to return. To grieve is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Grief is a consequence of love. And love, really, is what this whole human experience is about.

Trebbe, why would we want to set aside a day to mourn? Wouldn’t it be better to try to get over it and focus on positive things?

TREBBE: I love this question! First of all, it means to get real. It means to allow ourselves to feel the pain in our hearts and express it. I think something that often happens is that people feel like they should be controlling their own suffering because they presume that someone else is suffering more acutely. Someone apologized to me for grieving the death of her cat when I was grieving the death of my husband. I said, “No! Your cat died! That’s your sad reality right now!” There is a great effort, especially in this country, with our image of relentless positivity, to “get beyond” suffering, to “put it behind us.” And what happens is that we do that, or attempt to do it, without facing it our sorrow in the first place! How can you put something behind you if you haven’t faced it? 

So we have to face the sorrow, whatever it’s about—the death of a loved one, your inability to see your new grandchild at Christmas, your extremely confusing and isolating first year of college. We have to accept the reality of sadness and cry over it. Since Andy died, I cry whenever I have to, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. In the beginning, that crying was like having something absolutely wrenched out of me, like being flayed, it was so painful. But then, every time, what happens is, we cry and the crying itself seems to heal something. I often have had the feeling that the grief itself is pushing me back out of its own dark well, back into the light.

And that brings me to another understanding of what it means to grieve. It also means not staying there in that deep well beyond the necessary time! That doesn’t mean, in my experience, that you go through a certain number of weeks or months and then you start feeling better. It means you step in and out of deep grief daily. And I believe in experiencing both the dark and the light fully. When we’re in the well of grief, we need to just cry. And then, when it’s over, we need to look around and say, What’s calling me now? What’s beautiful? How can I contribute? How can I live with as much passion and commitment and intention as possible?

Douglas—when you consider ways to grieve, what comes to you? Are some ways of grieving better, or healthier, or more likely to lead to healing than others?

DOUGLAS: A few weeks back we had a Sunday service with a pre-recorded sermon from Rabbi Sharon Brous. In that sermon, the rabbi talked about three movements we should go through as we move through difficult times. First we should grieve, she said. What follows is a capacity to speak truth and our ability to build a new future. This is a powerful blueprint the Rabbi offers us, for national and global change as well as how to navigate the personal losses of our lives.

You ask if there are some ways of grieving that are better or healthier than others – to which I refer back to this blueprint. Does your grief allow you to then speak truth or does it bid you to hide and be ashamed of what has occurred? Does your grief allow you to imagine a better day ahead?

Nationally, I think our communal grief response to the coronavirus has not been healthy or productive because it has not led us to speak a communal truth about it. Too many lies have been allowed to flourish in the shadows of our loss and pain. There has been little to no acknowledgement by our government of the losses due to the plague. I believe our government is the body that could rightly lead us into a national communal recognition of this experience and a conversation of how we can move through and beyond this experience together.

This is an experience the whole world is having, that our country is sadly amplifying. We should be able to mourn the daily loss that is rolling over us! The fruit of healthy grieving is the ability to speak truth and to build a new future in the days and weeks to come. Grief is not easy. But it is extremely valuable.

Trebbe how we can do more than cope with heartaches and difficulty, how can we thrive?

TREBBE: To go back to what I said before, we have to begin coping with heartache and difficulty by admitting we’re in heartache and difficulty. We have to reach out to others—by phone, by Zoom, in person, whatever is possible—and honestly express what we’re going through. 

And then we have to remember, in that same context, that same conversation or Zoom call, that others have lives too, and heartache, and hard times. Opening up to the world of others expands our own world. 

It’s also very important to find life, beauty, and meaning wherever we can. I’ll tell you a story. Less than an hour after Andy died, I had packed up our things at the hospice facility and was taking the first load out to my car. It was nearly midnight. When I stepped outside the air-conditioned building, I was astonished to hear the songs of katydids in an immense chorus in the woods and even on the other side of the road. I just put down my bags and stood there listening for a minute. I was infused with the extraordinary brilliance and perseverance of life, even at that most horrible time. Nature, the kindness and human sweetness of other people, something you read—every day the world is waiting to invite us in to the wondrous and beautiful, and we can say Yes to those invitations, even in the hardest, most anguishing moments of our life. 

And finally, I’d say that thriving and not just coping means listening closely to our own inner voices and how they compel us to respond to life. There are opportunities every day, many of them, not just to receive that kindness and beauty but to give it. To say thank you to the person working in a supermarket, to tell your friend something you really appreciate about them, to volunteer for a cause you believe in, to pick up litter on the street. Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are also a thousand ways to give beauty, and we can do that no matter what we’re going through personally.

DOUGLAS: Trebbe, thank you for sharing this time with me. We have revealed together some deep and salient points as we each work to heal the world along with our own hearts this day.

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love   (from MaMuse)

May this hour open for us all a window through our grief and loss into the depth of human care and connection. May love continue to lead us into the ways of truth and grace.

In a world without end, may it be so.

Health of the Self

Health of the Self

Rev. Douglas Taylor

12-13-20

https://youtu.be/TQKW9QGYmOc

This past week Gallup polling released results from its annual ‘Health and Healthcare’ survey which it does every November since 2001. In this poll, Americans are asked to report on their own mental or emotional wellbeing. You could say your mental health is “excellent, good, only fair or poor.” Since the onset of this polling, the results have been rather consistent, around 85% of respondents rating themselves either Good or Excellent. The range over the years has gone at high as 89% and down to 81%. Until this year, of course, when the numbers dropped to 76%.

https://news.gallup.com/poll/327311/americans-mental-health-ratings-sink-new low.aspx?fbclid=IwAR3PemtF4dpU3tMrRdA5pP_OkRv_VhPqYI6uyLuCSuiOIp9vHgFY6uDzSTs

This is not a crisis. But it is a notable variation in an otherwise rather consistent trend. It’s like the whole world is sad and stressed. The obvious culprit in this scenario is the CoVid-19 pandemic. People are feeling constrained and uncertain about the future. There are financial concerns and health concerns weighing heavily on people’s minds – which exacerbates one’s sense of mental wellbeing.

The analysis of the polling results gets even more interesting when you notice some of the demographic subgroups and how they responded. Nearly every subgroup saw a decrease the number of people reporting themselves to have excellent mental or emotional wellbeing: both male and female, Republican, Independent, and Democrat, married, non-married, white, non-white, all the age ranges and income brackets. The news is that women dropped by more points than men – but women dropped 10 points while men dropped 8. (A notable exception is the political affiliation, but remember the survey was done just after the election last month so Democrats dropping by a small number and Republicans by a larger number is easy to interpret.)

In general, the trend is that across-the-board fewer people report their mental and/or emotional wellbeing as good or excellent. There is one additional anomaly in this report that I’ll come back to in a few minutes. But let me first ask:

How are you doing? This has been a rough year. Would you say your mental and emotional wellbeing is excellent or good? Would you rate it as fair or poor? How are you doing?

Me? I would not rate my mental health at Excellent or even Good this year. It has not been a good year for me. It has been good in the past – I think most of the time I have served as minister to this congregation my mental health has been good. But this year my mental health has been fair to middling with bouts of awful. I have been struggling mightily this year with depression.

I tell you this for two reasons – and neither of those reasons is that I need you to take care of me. I have my colleagues and friends; I have my family and my medical professionals to support me. I mention my own struggle not because I need you to fix me or save me. I am getting the help I need.

Instead, I mention my own struggle with depression for two reasons in particular. First, to serve as a witness. You may be in a bad spot yourself. Mental illness has a weighty stigma clinging to it. In her book Stubborn Grace, UU minister Kate Landis talks about how religion in particular would in the past (and in some corners still today) equate mental illnesses with moral failings or displeasure from god. To this day, people bury their shame and hide in secrecy rather than reveal something like the struggle I’ve been in. So, I bear witness. This is hard enough without adding secrecy and shame to the mix. You may be struggling with a mental illness. You are not alone. God is not against you. Your faith community can be of support to you.

The second reason I mention my own struggle is for acknowledgement.  You may have witnessed me these past nine months stumbling now and then; and you may have thought to yourself, ‘he’s not doing well.’ I share my struggle to acknowledge what you may have wondered about. You were right. Part of what happens in my depression is I drop important things, I forget things, I get exhausted and can’t follow through on things. So, I offer this as acknowledgement. I’ve been working on ways to overcome these difficulties. I have some tricks and strategies to keep up with it all. If you’ve been concerned, I want you to know you have a good eye, trust yourself, thank you.

And, if you have not been concerned – if you had no idea how much I have been struggling, don’t feel bad, I am very good at hiding my struggling. I am working on not hiding so much. I’ve been working on not hiding for years. I shared with key leaders and staff what I’ve been going through a couple months back. 

And if you are wondering about your own mental wellbeing, I encourage you to find support. This is not a time in which to deal with difficulties alone.

There is a snippet of a song I find keeps returning to me – it is from a music ensemble called Silver Mt Zion. https://soundcloud.com/ifnotnow/when-the-world-is-sick-1 “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” Such a compelling statement, an indictment, and acknowledgement, and a calling back into our better natures. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.”

The whole world is sick right now. The Covid-19 pandemic obviously, but in other insidious ways as well. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” And when the world is sick – how much harder it is for you to keep your head up and keep yourself in a positive frame of mind. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” We are not going to be stuck like this forever. We are going to round this bend, we will turn this corner, the planet will swing on its axis and the sun will shine more again, and it will happen soon – sooner than you expect. “When the world is sick, can’t no one be well; but I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.” This too shall pass.

If you find you need a little extra support right now, a little more than you usually do to get through, by all means, reach out and connect. Now is not the time to hide or to push through on your own. Because I dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.

Something turns the ache and pain around, or at least frames in within a context of hope. Something else is happening beyond just this pandemic, beyond just my depression, beyond the suffering you and others experience. Something else is also going on. Something leads us to dream we are beautiful and strong, leads us to become more beautiful and strong.

There is a delightful little surprise in that Gallup pole I mentioned at the beginning. The poll said that everyone is feeling a little worse off than last year. Some demographics are less bad, but everyone has lost ground their self-assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. Every demographic except one. There is one subgroup that actually gained ground, one subgroup whose numbers increased from 2019 to 2020 in their assessment of their mental and emotional wellbeing. It is the category of people who attend religious services weekly.

This is like finding an article that says people who eat a lot of cheese live longer and I eat a LOT of cheese so I would send copies of that article to all my friends and family as proof that I’m going to be okay. (Except in the real example it is about going to church rather than about eating cheese, so I probably still need to cut down on how much cheese I eat. But that’s a topic for another sermon perhaps.)

Over this past year, people who attended a worship or prayer service weekly showed an increase how many of them say their mental wellbeing is good or even excellent.

In her book Held, Rev. Barbara Meyers talks about the value of religious community in healing and recovery, in mental wellness. She says

People heal in relationship to other people, and acceptance in a community where their presence is honored and where they can be honest about the mental health challenges they face is central to recovery and to living with their situation.” (p23)

In her book, Meyers lifts up the Eight Dimensions of Wellness. Included in the list of eight, as you might expect, are emotional and spiritual wellness. The list also has social, intellectual, and environmental wellness; along with physical, occupational, and financial wellness – which some may see like a stretch. But when you think about it: if you do not have physical or financial wellness, you are more susceptible to being unwell emotionally or spiritually. Mental Illness resides in our brains and as such, effects our entire being.

And week after week, we here in this congregation talk about bringing your whole self to the experience of worship. We talk about needing to nourish our intellect as well as our spirits and our emotions. We talk about service – physical and financial ways to help the world around us. We are a community of healing. Our faith communities are not therapy centers. Instead we are centers of hope and humanity. We are not medical professionals. We are simply communities of caring people. Who better to heal the broken than those of us who are also broken?

There is an old and deceptively light book entitled, The Gospel According to Peanuts which is brimming with wisdom. In one strip, Linus is sitting there, eating his sandwich, and he becomes absorbed in his own hands. “Hands are fascinating things.” He says, “I like my hands, I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character.” His sister Lucy looks up with a puzzled expression while Linus goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works…. They may build a mighty bridge, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” And then he turns to Lucy with a flourish saying, “These are the hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy looks at his hands, looks up at Linus, and says, “They’ve got jelly on them.”

But we’re the only ones here to take care of each other. We all have jelly on our hands. Annie

Dillard says,

There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth—only us… unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been.                       – Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (1977)

We are a congregation of jelly-fingered people, of struggling lovers of life, of brokenly half-woke wanderers trying to find our way through to the next day. And the way we are going to make it is by helping each other. By shining God’s love on one another’s woundedness.

Over the years of my own journey with depression and as a witness to the journeys of others with various other mental illnesses, I can tell you that our congregations save lives. Our congregations serve as centers of hope and simple humanity. We spread the message that God is not a bully counting our sins and ready to fling us into punishment and suffering. The world is not rigged, we declare, it is not designed for catching us in mistakes.

When we falter, when we slip, we are here to help each other. Do not hide your sadness or your pain, we are here to help each other. That’s the amazing thing about this or really any religious community that is doing the work of the spirit – however that manifests. We are God’s hands, helping each other to rise again. Our hands, our jelly-covered, broken, grief-stained hands are the hands of grace in a world of heartache.

How are you doing? Are you holding on? I need you to hang in there. I can help. Me? I’m better than I was earlier this year, but I’m still kinda battered. But I know how we’re going to make it through. I’ve seen the kindness and the care that runs like a golden thread throughout this community. I have witnessed the grace. I have experienced our healing. And I have dreamt we were all beautiful and strong.

In a world without end

May it be so

Benediction:

May the salvific simplicity of friendship surround us

May the grace of God’s love pour over us and through us

And may all that hinders and isolates us be hushed

in strength of that simplicity and of that grace.

The Blessing in the Breaking

Bean sprout,plant,macro,close up,agriculture - free image from needpix.com

The Blessing in the Breaking

Rev. Douglas Taylor

11-15-20

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

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Whither the Nation

11-8-20

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?

File:RGB color wheel 24.svg - Wikimedia Commons

Do You Hear?

Rev. Douglas Taylor

10/25/20

https://youtu.be/3liJ44NMwt8

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.