Expecting Forgiveness, Accepting Atonement

Expecting Error, Accepting Atonement

September 29, 2019

Rev. Douglas Taylor

We are at an anxious moment in the life of our congregation and in our country. There has been a lot of turmoil politically leading up to the recent announcement of the impeachment inquiry of the current US president. It has been a long road, and we are at the beginning of a new chapter politically. There has been a great deal of trouble these recent years for immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, and the poor in terms of the current administration’s policies and actions and tweets. Now is not an easy time to identify as a person on the margins in our country.

At the same time, there are positive changes at hand. There has been a rising-up of people at the margins, a calling out of harmful behaviors that used to go unnoticed and unchecked. With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #metoo movement, and other similar undertakings at play in our society, it is also becoming thankfully more difficult to be complacent and unaware of the harm happening to people traditionally at the margins. 

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “I did not think this was going to be one of his political sermons.” It’s not. I’m talking about forgiveness today. But I want us to be cognizant of our context. With atrocities and injustices piling up around us in the world and in our nation, it can be jarring to talk about ‘assuming best intentions’ when we bump up against each other. With all the trouble out there, many people don’t have much ‘benefit of the doubt’ left to give. With all I am reading and hearing from people in harm’s way, I am not feeling inclined to ‘just let it go’ or ‘just give ‘em another try.’

And here is my point: Where does that leave us for simpler interpersonal troubles. Where does that leave us when we are dealing with injuries and broken relationships among friends? It is as if the usual cushion of grace and mercy and ‘positive regard for all’ is too thin of late to account for even the smaller slights of our living.

What I’m saying is: I am worried for us. Because let us not forget, this community is in the midst of a lot of anxiety-producing work! We have raised a million dollars in pledging for our capital campaign. The bids are out to the contractors and we eagerly await the news of how much it will actually cost, with that looming worry that our one million dollars – so large and phenomenal a number – will prove insufficient for the amount of work. We are in that delicate ‘moment of unknowing.’ We can start dreaming up the worst scenarios with no reality to check our imaginations.

I am feeling anxious about all that is unknown and unresolved here in our church-life and in our country. I am normally a bastion of non-anxiousness. But friends, I am anxious. I’m anxious about the president. I’m anxious about climate change. I’m anxious about what the contractors are going to say about our renovation plans. I’m a little anxious.

This is the context in which I would speak of forgiveness. Because, the art of forgiveness is one of the ways to ease our anxiety. When we are anxious, we become like the proverbial powder keg. Forgiveness is a salve or balm for our daily living. And here I’m talking about the simplest form of forgiveness, almost more of ‘practice-level forgiveness’ than actual forgiveness. Did you know there are different levels, different kinds of forgiveness? There are. Let me tell you about this most simple form: Practice-level forgiveness.

Practice-level forgiveness is a simple form where we try it out, we work on it privately in low-risk settings. It looks like this: when I’m driving to work in the morning and another driver does something aggressive or annoying or stupid, I can respond with practice-level forgiveness. This is not the same as ignoring the other driver’s behavior or doing my meditative breathing. This is not ‘Oh, well’ or ‘whatever.’ It is about recognizing the other driver’s aggressive or annoying behavior and forgiving it. “That driver is in a hurry,” I might think. “That driver must be having a rough day.”

When I am having a rough day, I am more inclined to call aggressive and annoying drivers by rude names. I am more inclined to judge them harshly and assume things about their upbringing. I’m not proud of that. I’m just telling you what it can be like sometimes. It is healthier for me to offer practice-level forgiveness to that other driver.

I think about the other driver. I notice their driving behavior and – honestly – I make up a snap story about the other driver, maybe put myself in that other driver’s shoes and then make up a generous story about what is going on for them. Maybe they need to find a bathroom, fast. Maybe they are on their way to the hospital. Maybe they just got fired or they’re exhausted or they’re distracted by the news report on the radio.

Do you hear how that’s not the same as just ignoring an annoying driver? Ignoring it is to not think about the other driver, to just focus on your own driving. That’s a good thing to do. But it’s not forgiveness. This simple practice-level forgiveness is almost closer to what happens when I call other drivers rude names. Think about it. When I think ill of the other driver, I’m making a judgement about them. “That guy is a real jerk.” Well, in practice-level forgiveness I am also making a judgement about them. “That person must be having a rough day.” And I don’t really know what kind of day they’re having. Maybe they really are a jerk and I’m letting them off easy. But you know what – it doesn’t matter. My opinion about that other driver only affects me.

In her book Of Mess and Moxie, Jen Hatmaker shares something similar. She writes:

“Back when I was nurturing my anger, I’d spend a good half the day replaying, remembering words… I practiced comebacks … You know what the other person likely did that day? Ate a sandwich, answered some emails… I deferred my own peace and the only loss was mine.” (192-3)

And hear me: this is all practice-level forgiveness. If that aggressive or annoying driver hits my car, causes an accident, does actual harm, then we can talk about other levels of forgiveness. But at this point, the other driver is just one of a multitude of little annoyances on my way to work. Neither my scathing glare or my generous forgiveness make a wit of difference to the other driver except in how it may alter my driving behavior and my attitude about the day.

Ultimately, I am steering us to look at this in terms of how we interact with other people. In the practice-level of forgiveness, we are practicing meeting each other. We develop a habit of being open to the reality that everyone is going through something.

This is the beginning. It is about tempering my expectations of myself, of others, of life in general. If I can keep the reality of errors or imperfections in the equation when going through my day, it makes it easier to roll with it when things don’t go as expected, when people don’t behave as expected. Practice-level forgiveness, is really about tuning in to what’s going on for other people. It’s not exactly forgiveness. Not really. It’s just a warm-up to when it might be needed. You can think of it as empathy training. It’s the groundwork – learning to meet other people in the messy imperfections of our lives.

This is like that amazing poem by William Stafford “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The poem, and this sermon so far, is not exactly about forgiveness so much as about meeting each other, about connecting. Stafford writes:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider—

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep

In many ways, I contend, the work of actual, full-level forgiveness is about the repairing of relationship, about meeting each other across our mistakes and crimes. It about keeping the connection – the parade of our mutual life – despite the injuries. As we move on from the practice-level forgiveness, we weave our way into the harder work of actual forgiveness.

Now, when we get to this part, I imagine many of us begin to consider the injuries we’ve experienced. I am not unaware of the difficulty here. The realities of abuse and betrayal are fierce and immutable. Not all relationships should be reconciled or even repaired. Some of the wounds are bruises to our feelings and others are literal wounds to our bodies. Author and speaker Jen Hatmaker puts it succinctly: “There are degrees of harm, and not all pain is equal.” Hatmaker continues from there, writing: “Our paths to health vary, but we all have this common denominator as the foundation of healing: Forgiveness.” (p190)

To be clear, forgiveness and reconciliation often go together but they are not the same thing. As with the practice-level forgiveness and the example of my morning commute to work: my attitude of forgiveness does not necessarily mean there is any change or impact on the person I am forgiving. But it has a tremendous impact on me. This is true with the full-level forgiveness as well. It can lead to reconciliation but it does not need to. Forgiveness serves to heal you. That puts you in a position to be able to heal the relationship if that is the path your healing takes.

Jen Hatmaker, again from her book Of Mess and Moxie, articulates this with remarkable clarity. She writes:

“The work of forgiveness is so challenging—the actual work of it. The naming, grieving, empathizing, releasing. It’s like a death. A death of what we wanted, what we expected, what we’d hoped for, what we deserved and didn’t receive…. We don’t get to control other people or outcomes. I am as devastated about this as you.” (p193)

She uses the metaphor of death. “It is like a death,” she says. “A death of what we wanted, what we expected.” The Jack Kornfield reading (The Ancient Art of Forgiveness) offers the same metaphor. The woman in Kornfield’s story, you may recall, said she would kill the boy, but what she did was kill that murderer from within the boy. It’s like a death … of what we expected, of the way the story was supposed to be. And instead something else grew. Instead, an unexpected opening appeared, healing took root, atonement became possible.

And given the context of our living, it is good to allow the grace of healing and atonement to be within reach. Given the looming impeachment proceedings, the foreboding climate crisis, the lingering moments of unknowing at play for our congregation, and countless other concerns weighing on our anxious hearts, is it not good to take some time do some practice-level forgiveness or even full-blown forgiveness with the people in your life.

It is good because many of us have grown a little weary and worn of late. The healing you gain will aid you as you weave your way through the other anxieties of your day. The healing and atonement possible will help restore our spirits and return us to wholeness in our beautifully broken way. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.

The Gentle Oppressor

A sermon on the dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology in Unitarian Universalism

The Gentle Oppressor

Rev. Douglas Taylor

September 15, 2019

Something interesting and perhaps unsettling is happening in Unitarian Universalism lately. There is a change unfolding among us, a turning. And it has to do with something deep. It is about how we do our justice work and the theology behind it – which means this unfolding change, this turning, is about our very identity as a people of faith.

My colleague Darrick Jackson serves on the UUMA executive team and recently wrote a reflection that talks about the impact of this unfolding change among us. Jackson shared about something that came up for him: 

… in response to a conversation with a young, white, male layperson. In it, [the young man] asked if there was a place for him in Unitarian Universalism. [Jackson goes on to say] This question resonated with me and had me, a gay, middle-aged man of color, asking the same thing. It struck me that we were both seeking a place in this faith, and neither of us felt like we fit. …

Let me share with you where such questions are coming from. The Black Lives Matter movement began in its current iteration back in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Unitarian Universalist churches, in solidarity started hanging Black Lives Matter banners, participating in rallies and marches, and generally getting involved in the anti-racist effort to end unchecked police violence against black and brown bodies.

A few years later, we Unitarian Universalists had moment in which people said, ‘wait a minute. We are doing all this anti-racism work out in the streets but our congregations and our regional & UUA staffing continues to be predominantly white. Let’s do some internal work.’

And 18 months ago, our congregation, along with most other UU congregations, hosted a “Teach-In about White Supremacy.” It is hard to look at our own UU culture and tease out the places in which we participate in the systems of oppression. There has been an increased attention lately to the voices of people of color, a centering of people and voices that have traditionally been at the margin of our UU culture. It’s beginning to get noticeable.

This is difficult in part because Unitarian Universalism has a long and justifiably proud history around Social Justice. It is not easy to be called out about something we’re known for being pretty good at. American history is littered with the names of Unitarian and Universalist activists. From the fight for the abolition of slavery through the 1960’ civil rights era, Unitarians and Universalists (and after our merger in 1961, Unitarian Universalists) have been part of the work.

And not just the work of racial justice. You’ll find our names involved in the women’s movement, as advocates for better health care, at the establishment of the American Red Cross and the Sanitation Commission, as early proponents for same-sex marriage, and at the southern border during the ‘80’s Sanctuary Movement and today. All of that history is borne from our Liberal theological message that says freedom is an essential spiritual necessity.

This summer at General Assembly, my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed received the award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. He has been a UU minister and scholar for many years. Mark elucidates a critical point for Unitarian Universalism along the line between liberalism and liberation and how we talk about freedom. Liberalism’s freedom is very personal. It is about freedom of thought and freedom of religion and stresses the importance of providing opportunities for individuals to be free. Liberation’s freedom is communal. It is about the shared struggle to build relationships and repair relationships that will free individuals and communities from oppressive systems.

Traditionally, we Unitarian Universalists are in the Liberal Theology camp rather than in the Liberation Theology camp. Early Universalists theology said: God is love. We are loved so the best response is to love others. Or, we are loved and so is everyone else, God doesn’t stop, so we shouldn’t either. Or, our work is to make heaven here not just wait for it later

Early Unitarians theology said: Salvation by Character, you get to heaven by being a good person, so help others and you’ll get in. Or, everyone needs the chance to develop their moral character, we need to adjust society so it can happen. Or, we are God’s hands in the world, we are the ones who bring God’s freedom and compassion to people in need.

All of those are versions of Liberal Theology. We don’t see divinity as taking sides for people and groups. Just because we are privileged does not mean God loves us more. It means we are more responsible to make things better for the whole human family. We see the holy wherever there is peace and goodness, regardless of the groups and sides. “God’s love embraces the whole human race,” is how one of our hymns puts it.

There has long been a critique of Liberal Theology, however, that says it is too entangled with colonialism to still serve. There is a patronizing element in which we offer to help the poor or the ‘least of these’ without becoming one with them. We risk perpetuating the oppressive systems even while reaching out to help those in need, we risk becoming gentle oppressors. And our Liberal Theology allows that to go unnoticed and uncritiqued.

Once place that critique does come if from Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology says that in fight against injustice, God is particularly interested in the wellbeing of the poor and disenfranchised. God has a preferential option for the poor. Liberal Theology starts with the notion that God doesn’t take sides; God is for everyone. Liberation Theology says, No. God is not neutral. Liberal Theology says, “That’s not what we meant.” Liberation Theology says, “Well, that’s how it comes out over here.” (At least, that’s what the dance sounds like in my head when I let these two Theologies interact.)

Liberation Theology starts with the analysis that some people are oppressed and other people are doing the oppressing. This can be seen as creating an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, but it doesn’t stay there because the solution from a Liberation Theology perspective is that everyone needs to get free – the Us and the Them.

I began with the story of a colleague’s story in which he and another person each wondered if they fit here. Jackson goes on to write:

I believe that we all have a place here, but it might not be the place we imagined, and it might not be the place we are used to. It is a place of mutuality, respect, and integrity.

What Jackson is articulating is a way forward based in a Liberation Theology. There is room for us all here; it means a few things need to change for that to work, but a way forward is possible. What is happening in Unitarian Universalism today, this deep turning, this unfolding change I’m pointing to is a dance we are currently in around Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.

Part of what Liberation Theology calls us into is the particular. We need to get specific. My colleague Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley has an essay in the Essex Conversations in which she writes: 

What liberalism and liberation have in common is that each is engaged in a project to extend human freedom, but liberalism’s approach is inadequate, in part, because of its tendency to view freedom in the abstract — without exploring a critical question: freedom for whom to do what?

Consider this example: Liberal Theology says “All Lives Matter.” That commitment is at the heart of Liberal Theology. It is the heart of the Universalism and the Humanism I grew up in. Of course, all lives matter. And we have banner in the front of our building that says “Black Lives Matter.” This is part of the dance, the turning we are in. Can we do both? Can we say Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Yes. Am I suggesting we put an “All Lives Matter” sign out? No. Part of what is at stake here is the sanctity of certain deep values and ideas. And part of what is at stake here is actual human lives. Our call for freedom needs to be specific.

The reading we had this morning https://www.uuworld.org/articles/power-we (last section by Betancourt and Ortega-Aponte) is taken from a presentation that happened at this summer’s General Assembly in Spokane WA. Part of why I selected this reading is because it lifts up some notable Liberation Theology as a reflection of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. They articulate a communal endeavor.

Betancourt said:

Believing that we are all saved together, that one life cannot reach its greater meaning unless we center the liberation of all, means not only a willingness to invest in one another and in the greater good, but also responding faithfully to the call to live into the work together.

The message has shifted from “We need to make room for them,” to “We need to make room for us.” This is the result of asking questions about who is on the margins and who is at the center. It is an impact of this dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.

Back in June, when I returned from General Assembly, I help bring a re-broadcasting of the big GA Sunday Morning worship service to you. The sermon was called “In This Delicate Turning” delivered by Reverend Marta I. Valentín. Some of you may remember because the video didn’t load and I read the transcript instead. One of the things Valentín said near the end of the sermon was about this question around centers and margins, about this question around is there room for everyone. Valentín offered this:

Am I saying we all must be the same? No. Am I saying that power needs to be shared? Yes. Am I saying that power needs to be given away? Yes. This is part of the delicate turning, the willingness to be led.

And this is what leads us back to that conversation Rev. Darrick Jackson had with that young, white, male layperson. When we draw the lines Liberation Theology asks us to notice, my identity lines up with that of the oppressor. I am white, male, and heterosexual. I understand what is at stake here. I find myself invited to take stock of where and how and at whom my power and privilege is at play. There is internal work for me to do.

The big work of justice-making is relational work, communal work. But there is inner work for me, as there is for all of us, to become clear. Who am I? Why am I invested in this faith and in this vision of a Beloved Community? Why am I involving myself in racial justice work? What is my part in perpetuating systems of harm? Or to get particular: How do we shift old trusted processes like Roberts Rules of Order and Freedom of Speech so they serve liberation rather than the status quo? And, is there room for me here in this faith? How can I move forward?

I’m not suggesting you change your theology from Liberal to Liberation – as if that was something a person could just do. I am suggestion you join the dance, allow the challenging interplay between them. Liberation Theology calls us into a place of what Betancourt called ‘collective salvation.’ Or as my colleague Theresa Soto puts it, “All of us need all of us to make it.” 

Our Unitarian Universalism is in a time of unfolding change, a turning. Which voices will carry the center? What is at the center? Where are we headed? These are currently open questions. But I wholeheartedly with Jackson’s conclusion – yes. Yes, there is a place for you here. And yes, that means things will need to adjust from what they used to be like. But you know what? That’s what life is like anyway. Things are going to change, let’s be intentional about where we are headed together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Prayer for Freedom

Prayer for Freedom                

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Gracious and Loving God, from Whom all things come and to Whom all things return

We give thanks this morning for the opportunity to again gather as a people of faith in search together for comfort and meaning and a path toward justice.

Some of us here today have barely made it through the week. Life has been hard and we need the presence and prayers of good people and of thee to sustain us on our journeys.

Some of us here today have arrive excited and curious, looking for new ideas and new opportunities to connect and to build something good and beautiful.

Some of us here today have heavy hearts for the suffer happening just beyond our front doors, for the poor, the immigrant, the incarcerated, the disenfranchised and disempowered.

We gather this morning as Unitarian Universalists seeking freedom and liberation for ourselves and for all people. We gather to be co-creators of a sacred space together guided by the deep values of our faith.

We recognize that a faith like ours needs to be enacted it needs to be lived in action.

We know that freedom for one of us needs the freedom of all of us. That the freedom of our faith community needs the freedom of all the faith communities

We hear how our own cries for relief amid our struggles as individuals sounds very much like the cry made by the immigrants who build this city years ago, and the immigrants who continue to show up today. It is the same cry from people incarcerated & dying in our county jail. It is the same cry from our transgender siblings and from people of color and from the poor and from all those abused and marginalized by our society today.

People like you and me, and people seemingly rather unlike you or me, all crying the same cry for relief from the sufferings we each experience.

Hear our cries, oh God, be with us in our difficulties.

Help us to find the courage to face the continuing injustices of our days.

Help us to reach out from our own heartache and become partners in the transformation of our world.

Help us to know, despite the messy complexity of life, that we do not struggle alone, that liberation is possible, and that hope is a powerful response in the face of what seems impossible.

Be thou an ever-present strength on the journey, O God.

In the name of all that is holy,

May it be so.

Chalice Lighting for Water Ceremony

Chalice Lighting for Water Communion/Ceremony  2019

Fire and Water,

flicker and flow

Our weekly ritual of bringing fire into our chalice reminds us of the spirit and the light

Our annual ritual of pouring water into our common bowl reminds us of our shared gifts and grace

Fire and water,

flicker and flow

We light our chalice – this fragile, flickering flame – as we honor the flow of grace among us. 

Blessing of the Backpacks

Blessing of the Backpacks

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Sept 1, 2019

Children, as you carry your backpack to and from school, it will at times grow heavy with responsibilities and homework and big, heavy books. In this moment we want to also fill your bags with something that has not weight at all. We want to fill your bags with the love and support of this community, with grace and compassion and respect. We want you to know that our love and our values travel with you through your days. May patience, honesty, and bravery be always tucked into the zippered pockets of your bags, available whenever you need.

Eternal Spirit from whom all things come and to whom all things return.

Watch over our children as we begin another school year. May their minds and hearts be open as they encounter new spaces and new ideas and new people. May they have opportunities to laugh and play and explore. Enliven their curiosity, O Spirit, inspire them to have big dreams and to ask big questions and to grow in strength and confidence.

Grant that they will persevere through their setbacks and work to overcome their challenges. Help them to always be true about who they are and what they experience of the world. Grant that they will reach out for help when they need it and to offer aid to others when they see someone else in need.

Keep their bodies safe and their spirits resilient. Surround them with adults who support and care for them.

And may they always know that they carry with them the values and support of this community. May they always be carried in your love.