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
Rev. Douglas Taylor
As many of you know, I have an annual tradition of preaching a sermon on the topic of forgiveness every fall in connection with the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar. I have said, many times, “Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity.” https://douglastaylor.org/2005/10/16/forgive-and-live/
For Jewish people, the new year is a time to begin again, to return to the path of becoming the people they are called by God to become. Through the course of each year, they read through the whole Torah. At this time, they complete that cycle and begin again. To enter the process, they repent of their sins, of those things that get in the way. They offer and seek forgiveness. I have said before that I find it “remarkable to have an annual opportunity to engage with the experience.” https://douglastaylor.org/2017/09/24/say-it-like-you-mean-it/
Over the years, I have offered sermon after sermon extolling the great virtue of forgiveness. I have talked about self-forgiveness and forgiving others, how to seek it and how to offer it, how it plays out in personal relationships and on a more global scale. I have explored topics of peace, anger, hope, and healing each through the lens of forgiveness.
I have said,
“[Forgiveness] does not only serve as a tool for repairing relationships, it can be about healing your own spirit so you can move forward again. Forgiveness is about freeing up the energy we had spent in our anger, our resentment, our grudge. Our anger and grief consume our spirit. Forgiveness is about letting go, about allowing healing.” https://douglastaylor.org/2014/09/28/forgiveness-and-healing/
I mention all this to be clear: I am a fan of forgiveness. I am a proponent and an encourager. I am in favor of forgiveness. Today, however, we’re going to spend some time talking about not forgiving. Let’s linger for a time in the consideration of when not to offer forgiveness.
I have two paths that have led me into this topic. First, I put a question out to my colleagues this summer. I asked …
“Every year I preach about Forgiveness in the fall. I’ve been at the same congregation for 17 years and am wondering what I’ll tell them this fall. I’d love to hear suggestions.”
And I was surprised to hear a few responses along the lines of – ‘hey the world is a mess, let’s talk about what we don’t forgive.’ Or, like the story of Moishele letting God off the hook, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/five-readings-for-yom-kippur, a few colleagues suggested we may well be wondering how to forgive 2020 for what an awful year this has been – and perhaps we shouldn’t.
This started me down the path, wondering: When is it a bad idea to offer forgiveness? When is it better to hold back on that until something else has been worked through first, something like justice or truth, or even grace? Maybe it’s not time for forgiveness yet. And if that’s how it might work for something big like the awfulness of this year, might it also be true for something smaller and closer like events in your personal life?
This line of thinking opened me to the second pathway into this topic. There is a song that came our a few years back now by an artist known for her party attitude and her dance music, Kesha. Her early music was a lot of ‘let’s get drunk and have fun.’ But this song I’m going to talk about came later. The song I’m talking about is called “Praying.” It is a ballad about the healing she fought to have after her abusive relationship with her producer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-Dur3uXXCQ&ab_channel=keshaVEVO
The perspective offered is about the power of healing. She begins talking about the abuse. The opening line of the song –
Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Oh, but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become
’Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell
I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’ …
She doesn’t say, ‘I hope you’ re somewhere suffering the way you made me suffer.’ She doesn’t say, ‘you hurt me, I hope you are now hurting.’ Instead she says ‘I hope you’re somewhere praying. I hope your soul is changing. I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying.’ Instead of following the usual script of seeking revenge, Kesha sings about letting go.
Someone once said, “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” (Anonymous) 1800’s preacher and poet E. H. Chapin once said “Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge, and dares forgive an injury.” But here’s the thing, in Kesha’s song, she indicates that what she’s offering is not forgiveness. She offers instead her hope that her adversary will change, but not because she has forgiven him. In the song’s bridge, she sings:
Oh, sometimes I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive
Kesha, in this song, is not offering her forgiveness. Instead she is offering the hope that her adversary will change.
Call to mind someone you feel has done you an injury, someone who has hurt you. Maybe they are still in your life, maybe they are not. But there is something still unresolved between you. (If you can’t call to mind a personal relationship, it may be easier to consider a celebrity or political figure whose actions you find hurtful even though they are not directed at you personally.) Call to mind the injury, the wound, the hurt they gave you. Maybe even the anger and pain you felt as a result. But don’t get lost in that. Instead, imagine yourself wishing that person to ‘see the light,’ to experience a change in their soul; but specifically not you forgiving them. They may find some forgiveness but not from you. Instead, what you wish for is for them to do their own work and become a better person. Does that feel different from forgiving them?
Here is what I think is happening in this. In the song, Kesha does not have any wish to reconnect with her adversary. She doesn’t want to repair the relationship. She doesn’t want to continue to have that producer in her life. She is working to let go rather than forgive. She is focused on her own healing rather than repairing a broken relationship.
Perhaps when we talk about the value of forgiveness for ourselves – even if we do not maintain the relationship in question – maybe that’s not actually forgiveness. Maybe healing and forgiveness go together most of the time, but not necessarily every time. Separating the two ideas is helpful. Sure, they travel together most of the time; but healing and forgiveness are two different things.
Think on the analogy of physical healing. If you have been cut – maybe you had surgery, for example – you need to heal before you go exercising again. Forgiveness, in this analogy, is a workout with another person. It takes heavy lifting. To offer forgiveness is to do that heavy lifting with someone. If you do it when you have not yet healed, is just painful and likely to perpetuates the harm. It might even make it worse.
If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t forgive that person. Leave, heal; later we can talk about forgiveness if that is warranted, but it might not be. There is an element in our culture that comes out of Christianity calling for instant forgiveness. It calls for us to offer forgiveness like Jesus on the cross. Forgive them, even while they hurt you. I say, that’s not a good idea. That is not the lesson we are meant to learn from that scene in scripture.
Now, I am not saying you should hold on to your grudges. I am not suggesting it is good or healthy to want vengeance or to stew in your anger. All I am saying is that to wish for someone to change – to pray for them to become better – is not the same as forgiveness. We can let go of the anger and the pain as we heal, but that doesn’t mean we need to let our abusers back into our lives. I am not saying we want those who have hurt us to suffer. I am suggesting that we can want those who have hurt us to also heal, that they may grow and stop hurting people.
And, forgiveness is a second thing.
Forgiveness is about letting them back into your life, about repairing the relationship on a new, healthier foundation. Or, don’t. I don’t think forgiveness is a spiritual imperative. I think healing is more important. Quite likely there will also be forgiveness, because once you have healed, you will find you have the strength, and probably a yearning, to do the hard work of forgiveness. Some of this, I must confess, I have learned from Lois Einhorn and her work on Forgiveness. https://rdrpublishers.com/products/forgiveness-and-child-abuse-would-you-forgive-by-lois-einhorn She has said healing was her goal. Eventually she offered forgiveness to herself, only to discover ‘forgiveness for those who had hurt her’ was happening as well – almost as an aftereffect.
As with the song from Kesha, the goal is healing. Repairing the relationship through forgiveness may or may not also happen. But I implore you to not rush forgiveness. It is a powerful tool of transformation; but it is not good to fake it or pretend you’ve done it. That will likely backfire. Focus on healing instead.
Yes, forgiveness couples with healing in extraordinary ways. Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. And it may not be what is required of you yet. It may not be your work to do. Such a transformation is not to be expected in every situation. I’m not saying don’t try for it. Hear me saying, relax and heal. I am certain that I will come to you next year with a plea to lean into the art of forgiveness. Have no doubt that I will return to my usual encouragement for us engage in the good, hard work of forgiveness. But for today, step back. Let the hurt and the anger flow away. Save forgiveness for another time. Let today be for healing: your healing and the healing of those who have hurt you. Let today be for healing.
In a world without end,
May it be so
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 29, 2020
Welcome back to another episode of ‘The Preacher Is Angry at our Racist Criminal Justice System.’ Black Lives Matter. Yes, in the news this week we had another police-shooting of a black person, Jacob Blake. This was followed by protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin which then turned to riots. Things escalated to include White nationalists – basically white gangs pretending to be an organized and well-regulated militia – showing up with guns to terrorize the protestors. And then one white kid shot three protestors, killing two of them. Black Lives Matter. And I continue to be baffled by those who complain that the destruction of property is a bad response to a killing, yet more killing is seen as a justifiable response to the destruction of property. Black Lives Matter.
Last weekend I was invited to participate in an orientation activity for the incoming freshman at Binghamton University. The administration selected the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson and the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay as the basis of community building and bonding conversations. With this Covid-19 pandemic causing death and disruption across the country, causing considerable difficulty for education plans on college campuses, this school decided to host deep conversations about systemic racism and corruption in the justice system. They decided what these anxious, incoming students needed was to dig deep into the value of diversity and the need to speak out against systemic injustice. I applaud their initiative. As part of the BU Interfaith Counsel, I served as a facilitator for three rounds of these conversations.
In preparation I read the book and watched the documentary. 13th is available to watch for free on Youtube right now. The documentary was eye-opening. I highly recommend it. I plan to lead a book discussion on Just Mercy in October for us here in the congregation. For today, let me focus on the documentary, 13th and how it relates to current events and indeed our values as a faith community. The premise centers around the loophole written into the 13th amendment. Most people know the 13th amendment to the US Constitution as one that abolished slavery. But that’s not quite true. The essence of the amendment does say “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”
But that’s not what it actually says. There’s a loophole in this 1865, post-Civil War amendment. Back a hundred and fifty-five years ago, congress worked in a way to continue slavery while officially abolishing it. The full text of the amendment reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Involuntary servitude or slavery continues as an American institution through our prison system. And I hope no one is surprised by the statistics showing the rise from roughly 350,000 people incarcerated in 1970 to over 2.3 million in 2016. 2.3 million … that ‘point 3’ there is where we were about 50 years ago. And I trust no one is surprised by the statistics showing the prison population is 40% black, while they are only 13% of the US population. Whites also make up just under 40% of the prison population even though we are 64% of the US population. This is more than disproportionate. In the documentary 13th lines out the rise and the shift in politics and culture that brought us to this point.
One significant pivot point in the history is referred to in the reading this morning. Ibram Kendi mention’s the 1997 National Conversation on Race launched by then President Clinton. I was in Seminary at that time and I remember in the fall of 1997 at Meadville Lombard Theological School, we had significant conversations about race. Of course, National Conversations on topics like race tend to circle around unproductively, quickly locking into political lines and continued divisiveness because no one is really listening or showing up to learn anything. But a Conversation on Race happening at a seminary? That’s different. We had symposiums and special guest lecturers. We were all there to listen and contribute and learn.
That’s a significant distinction in how to have a conversation like this. Aim to have it among people you are willing to be real with, people you are willing to be uncomfortable with, people who are willing to open up with you. Aim to have such a conversation in an environment of growth and learning. One such place is a faith community.
I noticed last weekend when I was facilitating these conversations at the university with the freshman, we used what they called “guardrails” which I would say essentially functioned like a covenant. It was a set of ground rules about listening and being respectful and using “I-statements.” It was very much the sort of container we create in our congregation when we have difficult conversations. It is the sort of container that – when done well – allows us to have conflict and differences and disagreements without unravelling the bonds of our community.
Back in 2017 our congregation participated in a Teach-In about White Supremacy. We’d been doing a lot of work together around anti-racism and White Privilege. The conversation in 2017 focused on the term ‘White Supremacy,” and it was not easy or readily embraced by all of us. And our goal was not to get everyone on the same page. Our goal was not to indoctrinate. Our goal was to deepen the conversation together. It’s hard.
We keep pushing ourselves deeper into the conversation, getting more familiar with what is happening and what is means for different people. This is powerful work we are doing. And we always move a little bit with each encounter. I remember discovering Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in 2012. Reading that book, I was amazed at how much I had figured out before even opening the book and yet again by how much I was not done learning. I’m still not.
Several years back, the phrase Black Lives Matter was a little contentious among us. We had to work through what the slogan did and did not mean. We had to work through how we were perceived in the community for putting that Black Lives Matter sign out on the side of our building. This past month at our Board Retreat, the idea of leaning in more strongly to Black Lives Matter issues was a touchstone for many Board members. It was talked about with a deep familiarity and agreement. I’m not saying everyone in this congregation today is 100% comfortable with being a full-throated, sign-carrying, hold-the banner-at-the-front-of-the-protest supporter of Black Lives Matter. But we have been in the conversation together long enough that we aren’t rehashing it every time it comes up.
I think we are starting to experience that with the phrase “White Supremacy” as well. That phrase was uncomfortable to a lot of us when we started using it regularly 3 years ago. It’s still uncomfortable for some, but it is growing familiar.
Next in line will be the current rally cry to Defund the Police or in some cases it is a call to Abolish the Police. We haven’t talked a lot together about that, but we should. Did you know, the UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray issued a special President’s Column in the UU World magazine this past June, in which she outlined her support of the Abolish the Police movement. It is a more radical of a stance than most UUs are ready to take.
We must demilitarize and defund the police… The notion that these systems create safety is a lie of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Just as we witness in the commentary on the present uprisings, it has always been to protect wealth and property—not life, and certainly not Black lives. We can’t reform the current system of policing in America. We must find a new way to keep one another safe.
Let’s talk about this. What does that mean? Are we ready to talk about making pledges to not call the police? What are we prepared to do instead? I’m still at the beginning of this conversation. I know some of you have been here for a while already and others are stunned right now that I’m even suggesting it. I expect this will be one of our next big conversation together.
Racism has changed and grown and morphed over the decades in America. We still have a few corners in the country where the Ku Klux Klan wears white sheets, but mostly the racism in our country is systemic, rolling across us like something normal. In the 50’s police and politicians and regular folks would shout racial slurs and talk about segregation. That’s what racism looked like then. That’s what a lot pf people are still looking for in this conversation. But things have changed. As the years went on, we had President Reagan talking about “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” and everyone know he was talking about black women. We had Hillary Clinton in the 80’s talking about “Super-Predators” and everyone knew she was talking about black men.
These are political dog whistles, words that don’t literally say something racist but imply it at a very deep level. Trump’s rhetoric is practically non-stop dog whistles. “Good people on both sides,” “Chinese virus,” “They should go back to the countries they came from,” “We used to be a lot rougher with guys like that back in the day.” All of that is just coded dog whistles for todays racism.
When a presidential candidate talks about Law and Order, that’s a well-documented stand-in code for racism. The Law and Order always lands hardest on poor neighborhoods, on people of color, and on folks at the margins. Listen for these coded ways people, particularly politicians, talk. States’ rights and ‘stop-n-frisk’ laws, drug enforcement policies and use of the word ‘thug.’ Racism is not simply about individual acts of bigotry and prejudice; rather it is insidiously woven into the fabric of our culture and country.
Spend less energy on the one white kid with an AR-15 walking unmolested past the cops after murdering two people in front of dozens of witnesses. Spend more energy on what systems are supporting that scenario to take place. The big piece I keep coming back to is the systemic element in all of this.
I have heard many times over the years that liberals like myself are just crying out about our victimhood and how awful and racist we all are. That the whole point of anti-racism education is the make white people feel bad about themselves. I don’t know about that. I mean, yes there is good work to be done through education and self-reflection. But if the big thing folks come away with is just feeling guilty it seems we’ve just wasted a lot of time for nothing.
What is actually going to help? Changes in legislation will help. As Dr. king said:
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)
That’s essentially what the racists are doing in our country today – just in reverse. They are being pragmatic about it. They are pushing for legislation what has the impact without needing it to be specifically racist: drug policies, criminal justice initiatives, tax cuts.
What is going to help is if a whole lot of white people start taking this seriously and start asking questions. Get curious. Why are the policies always hurting people of color disproportionately? Why are the junkies always black and the terrorists always brown in the media? Why can we afford two tanks for the Binghamton police department but there’s no money for a grocery store in the first ward? Get curious. Why are the black men being shot in the street while the white men get their day in court?
The work is not to feel bad about yourself if you are white. That’s just a waste of energy. The work is to learn to recognize what is happening systemically and fight against that level of the racism. We are steeped in it. But we keep stepping up to the conversation. Egregious examples of the consequences are still playing out in front of us. But we keep showing up to point it out and demand better from our society. White supremacy is grasping for more power and sway over our lives. Complicity continues to be poured over us by our consumer-culture. But still we rise. But still we keep asking questions about what’s really going on. But still we insist on truth and nuance. But still be lean into the hard conversation. We keep showing up, we keep listening, we keep learning more, we keep insisting on change.
That long moral arc may very well be bending toward justice. But today we see most clearly that it is a long arc and we have been bending with it for a while now. And we will bend with it for a while longer. That’s what we do. That’s how we will get through. Black Lives Matter.
In a world without end
May it be so.