Elements of Style

Elements of Style

A Sermon (in five chapters with a prologue)

Rev. Douglas Taylor

April 24, 2022

Video Sermon: https://youtu.be/j9HoeHqq1gs


In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/meditation-four-directions

In the pagan tradition, which is grounded in a respect and reverence for the natural world, calling upon the four directions is the usual way to begin any ceremony. Each direction is associated with an element of the natural world, and represents some part of our human nature as well. The directions are not seen as separate and isolated, but rather as part of the interdependent system that makes up the world…

When I title my sermon “The Elements of Style,” I am not referring to the classic writing style guide by Strunk and White. I am talking about the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. The old taxonomy of the four (or five) elements is still informative and can serve to guide our spiritual growth. They can be seen as qualities of being which we can exemplify; traits of our personality, of our living. My title, elements of Style, is meant to evoke how these four elements can be seen as styles of being.

Historically, the concept of four (and sometimes five) elements arises among the ancient Greek philosophers. The concept remained prevalent in Europe up through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Interestingly, there are similar concepts from ancient India and Japan as well, so this is not isolated to the Western worldview. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element

The conversation I am offering is not an attempt to explain the natural world as they were trying to do in those ancient times. Modern chemistry offers far more than four or five basic elements to understand the natural world. The Periodic Table of Elements is more accurate and helpful in that endeavor. I, on the other hand, am looking inward.

Perhaps a better parallel in our modern understanding is to link the four elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth to what we know about the states of matter: Solid, Liquid, Gas, and Plasma. Not only is this a fair parallel to see earth as akin to solid, water to liquid, air to gas, and fire to plasma – it is also a fair parallel in that it helps us shift from thinking of these four elements as things to thinking of them as styles of being. It is not that you are fire, it’s that you can be like fire.  

Chapter One: Air             “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We begin in the East, toward the rising sun. …Air and breath give us life. It is the direction of inspiration – the word that literally means to take in air. The east is associated with the mind, with knowledge and learning and intellectual curiosity. … Turning toward the east, we look for a fresh start, an invigorating breath, a new idea. When you are feeling stuck in a rut, beholden to a routine, or if the wind has gone out of your sails, look eastward.

I invite you to call to mind birds in flight. This is the image many associate with this element. Indeed, Starhawk suggests specifically a crow, in part because of their intelligence (from Starhawk’s Truth or Dare.) Air is the element of inspiration and vision and curiosity. Such virtues are among our central values as a faith tradition. Air is often a step removed from the fray, it is the realm of calm observation and focus.

You may want to approach this from a personal perspective, considering how you have the qualities of air in your life. But I wonder if we can think of this communally. Does our congregation have enough air? Or maybe you’ll call to mind other communities and circles in your life. What does that look like for a group to have enough air?

The quadrant of air strongly associated with the mind. It is about new ideas, fresh plans that help us live out our vision. Working from the perspective of air is about taking the long view, seeing the whole forest, the whole system, instead of just the individual trees as they say.

Are you a visionary? Do you see the way things fit? Do you imagine solutions to possible problems? The details are elsewhere on the wheel – air is big picture work. Air is about observing and understanding what is going on. Maybe step back a pace and take it all in. Air is the quality in our lives by which we can focus on remaining true to our primary purpose and goal. And then making a plan to move forward!

Be like air: Observe, breath, focus, decide.

Chapter Two: Fire                “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We move around the wheel to the south. The element of the south is fire, …Fire is a transformative force, it is heat and light and powerful change. In the Northern Hemisphere, it makes sense that we associate the south, towards the equator, with the warmth of the sun and the heat of the flame. … When our internal weather gets cold, turning south is a metaphor for turning toward warmth and daylight, seeking out the changes that will warm us up, get our blood moving, call us out of our winters, out of hibernation, into action.

Every Sunday morning and at many gatherings for classes and meetings we Unitarian Universalists will light a chalice. We are regularly reminded of the ‘light of truth, the warmth of compassion, and the fire of commitment.’ Call to mind the dancing flame in our chalice. Or perhaps the mythos surrounding the phoenix – the bird that burns up and is then reborn. Fire is the element of change and action and transformation.

Fire is sometimes cast as a dangerous force, even destructive. All the elements can be, but fire by its nature consumes things, feeds on what is and turns it to ash. But as an element of our inner lives, it is more accurately a force for change. It is energy and excitement, passion for action. It is not negative. It is perhaps fair to say it is a force that burns away what has been, but in so doing it allows something new to arise, transformed

Is there enough fire in our congregation? I imagine there are some individuals in our lives whom we see as ‘fiery personalities.’ Some of you may be those people! But my question is less about individuals and more about the community. We all have the capacity to be like fire. Is there enough fire in our community? 

An obvious way this would show up is in our justice work. I have said several times lately that our justice work has been flattened by this pandemic and we are now working to stoke that fire back into the strong blaze we are used to seeing among us.

But there are other ways we can talk about the fire aspect in our congregation. The quadrant of fire is about our energy. Where is our energy at this time? What are we excited about together? As we keep pivoting and shifting with the gathering policy and our online presence and hosting in-person activities again – we are building up our fires. We are building up our energy. Can you feel that happening? The fires of our congregation need tending at this time, but they are still there.

Be like fire: Burn, tame, adapt, ignite

Chapter Three: Water          “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

Continuing around the circle, we arrive in the west. The element of the west is water, … In the west, we are drawn into the experience of our emotions. It is a direction that calls us to self-reflection and self-understanding. Our emotions move in us like water, flowing through our lives, sometimes calm and sometimes turbulent, but always flowing. …If you are seeking to get in touch with your inner life, with your emotions, turn towards the west.

Starhawk suggests the image of a snake to embody this element. Water is about the undercurrents, the unspoken understandings at play in our lives. The snake archetype shows up in many places religiously and culturally – some of those still connect to the way Starhawk is talking about and some do not.

Water is the element of feelings and reflection and healing. Feelings are powerful and often ignored or undervalued. There a patronizing way some have of dismissing the feelings of others and usually their own feelings as well. It is not healthy or helpful to do that. Like a snake, it may circle back and bite you when you least expect it.

But even though our feelings may be dismissed and undervalued, they are very important. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Taking the time to reflect on this will lead us to greater wholeness.

Is there enough water in our congregation? When you think about the places of good water in your life, I do hope this congregation is one such place for you. We talk a lot about covenant here. We work at being clear with our communication and addressing conflict when it arises. My sermons often carry some emotionally honest elements. And have I mentioned the value of brokenness lately? As we work to build up our fires, it is valuable to stay balanced with our water as well.

Be like water: Cry, cleanse, flow, let go.

Chapter Four: Earth                        “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We move now to the North. The element of the North is earth, …There is stability here, the ground of our being. The north represents the place that holds us, that allows us time and space to heal and grow, to feel nurtured and respected… The north calls to you if you are seeking balance, the deep wisdom that lives in your bones, a place of rest and recovery.

For an image of earth, Starhawk named this element for the dragon. She named it for a guardian of our greatest treasure, a protector of what is most important. Dragons in myth tend to be ancient and wise. Earth is the element of strength and protection and wisdom.

The aspect of earth in your life is about being grounded and practical and realistic. Earth is about protecting and conserving the resources and energy. Earth holds the boundaries and reminds us of our limits. Earth offers the details that counter the lofty goals of air. When air builds castles in the clouds, earth tethers those dreams into a living reality.

Is there enough earth in our congregation? Is there enough earth in your life? It sometimes feels to me like a little more earth is the antidote to so much of what is off in my life and in our congregation and certainly in society. It is about being grounded. Yes, the aspect of earth is focused on details and resources and limitations, but it also asks important questions: Is our work sustainable? How can we better nurture each other? What concrete skills and resource do we have to offer? What can we build? How can we do this better for everyone involved?

Be like earth: Ground, give, build, heal.

Chapter Five: Spirit              “The Earth, Water, Fire, Air” (SLT #387)

In her piece entitled “Meditation on the Four Directions,” Rev. Julia Hamilton writes this:

We have moved through these four directions, given them shape and meaning:
East: Air, breath and inspiration.
South: Fire, transformation and action.
West: Water, feeling and reflection.
North: Earth, balance and wisdom.

Adding a fifth element is not a wild, new idea. Aristotle suggested it was aether – which he defined as whatever the heavenly stars are made of, because they surely were not made of earth, air, fire, or water. The Vedas from India also talked about a fifth aspect which translates closer to ‘void.’ I am evoking a fifth along the lines of how modern neo-pagans speak of it: Spirit. 

Spirit is the element of wholeness and integration. It is about the connections, interconnections, and the in-between aspects of our living. It is the threads that bind us. It is our common heart. The classic four elements became associated with the four cardinal directions. Spirit is associated with right here, the center.

Is there enough spirit in our congregation? This is a question of balance. We might ask if each of the other elements are present and thriving. But this question of the balance found in spirit that is akin to the idea of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.

It is a question of connection. Are you connected? Are we connected? Are we listening to each other? How will you pour your gifts into this community – as earth or air, as fire or water? Where are your gifts? Was there one element or maybe two that you felt drawn to as I described them? What will you bring forth?

How is it with our spirit? The element of spirit is about connection. I know I have felt isolated and fragmented since the onset of this pandemic, but in truth we’ve long lived in a fragmenting and disconnected society.

A deep part of our work as a congregation has been to counter that destructive trend around and within us. Here, in spirit, we work to honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart. Now, more than ever, this is our work as a faith. To honor our differences and to strengthen our bonds, to nourish our common heart.

Be like spirit: Connect, listen, know, be still.

In a world without end,

may it be so.

Heaven in Our Hands

Heaven in Our Hands

Rev. Douglas Taylor

March 27, 2022

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/kgQ9NjPFB0A

We Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven anymore. It used to be a significant talking point. Historically, as we distinguished ourselves from other Protestant Christian denominations a few hundred years ago, we talked about heaven and how to get into heaven quite a bit. The early American Universalists spoke out about God’s love and how we were all God’s children and all of us would be reunited with God in heaven in the end. The early Unitarians spoke of how our deeds and actions were the measure to determine if we were good people and that as good people we would receive our reward in heaven.

Modern Unitarian Universalism is a pluralistic faith with a range of beliefs and practices. The central doctrines of the past are not as important to our identity as they once were. We gather around shared values more than common beliefs today. I contend, however, that our various beliefs and values still point strongly toward an idea like heaven, an idea like love.

I would talk more about love today, but allow me to linger a moment on the topic of heaven as we begin. We all have some ideas about heaven, ideas we may or may not believe yet we recognize all the same. What is heaven? Setting aside the pastoral aspect of that question for now, consider it from a metaphysical framework for moment. What does the concept call to mind for you?

Maybe you think of Heaven as a place. Perhaps the cartoons of people standing on clouds is the image you conjure in your mind. Or maybe you are a traditionalist and think of heaven as a garden, or a kingdom, or a city on a hill. It is possible you think not of a place or location at all. Perhaps you imagine heaven as an activity. Perhaps heaven is about playing a harp or being at rest or a least being free from suffering. Is that what comes to mind for you when you think about heaven?

Maybe the idea of heaven is less specific for you, maybe it is not a place or an activity so much as a sense of reward for being good or being saved. That is certainly in keeping with how people sometimes speak about heaven – as a motivation to behave ethically in this life. Or, consider the way people speak of seeing loved ones in heaven or how loved ones are looking down at us from heaven – this imagines heaven as a relationship more than a location, although location does seem tangled up in there again, doesn’t it. But it is more than a place – it is the place where we are with loved ones again, it is the place where we are with God.

What is heaven? There are differing answers to that question. We are a pluralistic tradition now. There isn’t ONE answer we are expected to nod to and accept.  However you think of it – whether you believe in heaven or not – as a place or relationship, as rest or reward, you certainly have some concept in mind when you think about the word.

I suggest, while we Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven, we do spend quite a bit of time talking about something similar. We talk about being good people and helping to make the world a better place. And there is a direct connection between these topics.

A few years back there was a television show about heaven that I found quite interesting. The show was talked about in my colleague circles quite a bit. The Good Place is a 4-season show on one of the online streaming channels. It is funny and clever, certainly irreverent and yet at turns poignant and even profound. If you haven’t watched it, I do recommend it. The premise is this: 

Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, is “welcomed after her death to the Good Place, a highly selective Heaven-like utopia designed and run by afterlife “architect” Michael as a reward for her righteous life. She realizes, however, she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect past behavior while trying to become a better, more ethical person.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Place

Early on, in the first episode, Eleanor asks who was right about the afterlife? Michael, the architect, answers her saying “Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, every religion guessed about 5%” But more interestingly, the show highlights moral philosophy while being entertaining. The show talks about Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard without watering them down. Really the show is about ethics and how to be a better person. Ultimately, it is a depiction of the afterlife as a place of learning.

One of my favorite quotes from the show is this: “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is, if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”

I love it when a conversation about heaven and the afterlife circles around to ethics and how we can help one another become better people in this life. I love that a conversation about heaven can lead us to a conversation about how we can make a heaven of this life we are living even today. Really, when any conversation about beliefs turns toward a conversation about ethics is a good conversation – as we heard in our reading this morning: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reflection/who-cares That is the heart of what I am lifting up this morning! The image of heaven we UUs evoke today is one of a community rooted in love and justice for all.

Our contemporary Unitarian Universalism reveals a theological challenge for us to live our values of love and inclusion – that heaven is in our hands. As poet June Jorden once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Two weeks back, a member of our congregation, Ruth Blizard delivered the sermon and she reminded us:

Many churches today still reject persons of color, require women to submit to men, believe homosexuality is a sin, and contend that only those who believe exactly as they do will be saved. Our tradition of universal salvation offers hope, acceptance and sanctuary to those doomed by other religions.

 She went on to clarify key points in our history which have led us to become who we are today – a justice-seeking religion of inclusion for all.

Then one week ago we heard a sermon from my colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg. He asked us about the evidence that we are living by these values and beliefs we espouse. He asked how people would know we are Unitarian Universalists from our actions, what is the evidence.

Today I notice the clear line from our historical theology of heaven into our contemporary mission to live our values in the world. We are trying to make this life rich and full and rewarding. We are working to build a just and compassionate society today, to manifest our heaven right here. We’re still a pluralistic community. We still have multiple answers to the question ‘What is heaven?’ and we are trying to build it together now.

Of course, it is hard to build anything at the moment. We are living in the long slow return from the pandemic disruption. Our society is simultaneously post-pandemic and still smack in the midst of the impact. We are picking up some pieces of the old normal and yet hundreds of people still die every day in our country from Covid-19. This is exhausting. And, we are working to manifest our heaven together in the midst of this mess.

The image we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care. As such, over these past two pandemic years, we have sought that balance between keeping people safe and staying in touch with each other; of protecting the most vulnerable among us and also resisting the deadening impact of isolation.

But that’s just the point. We are not waiting to receive a reward, to have a final rest when life is done. We are in it already. This is how it works. There is a line from Thoreau’s Walden in which he writes: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” (from The Pond in Winter) or as I’ve stated in my sermon title – in our hands.

It is always happening and it will keep happening over and over around us and within us and among us. Ever-unfolding anew each moment. It is not an ending. That’s one of the interesting pieces we offer – it’s not an ending … it is now. Or as Peter Mayer sings about it: “everything is holy now.”

Over the past few months, a handful of us have been in a UU theology class together, reading and discussing the book House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker. This has been a multi-congregational offering, co-led by myself, Rev. Darcey Laine of the Athens and Cortland UU congregations and Rev. Jo VonRue of May Memorial UU in Syracuse.  

I mention this class for two reasons. First, it is an example of what I’m talking about. Not that this class is an example of heaven. Nothing so grand. Instead, it is a small example of the community we are trying to create; one not confined by the usual limits. In this case, the usual limit of one minister teaching to one congregation.

The second reason is that the text we used offered a chapter about what I’m talking about this morning. In the first chapter, Rebecca Parker wrote about eschatology, the aspect of traditional Christian theology in which we find the topic of heaven. Parker wrote:

Radically realized eschatology … begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground.  This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life.  … Our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be … to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. [House of Hope p 12]

So I say we are in it now. As Parker said, “We are already standing on holy ground.” As Peter Mayer sang, “Everything is holy now.” Even with this pandemic confounding our living. Even with war and oppression, injustice and destruction plaguing our days. Still, we can bring love and hope with us into every situation. Still, we can make this time and this place a little more like heaven; because that is what we do. We are the ones.

(Sing) We are the ones, we are the ones, we’ve been waiting …

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  

The vision we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care for all. We have heaven in our hands, at our feet, in our hearts and minds. We can make this place even better. Even now it already is, and with a little effort on our part, it yet can be.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Prayer for Peace

Prayer for Peace

Rev. Douglas Taylor (Unitarian Universalist)

For the “Interfaith Vigil for Peace” held at the Jewish Community Center

March 9, 2022

(Barely two weeks into the Russian war on Ukraine)

Two days ago, renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a concert at Kennedy Center which he began with the Ukrainian National Anthem. Earlier that same day, Yo-Yo Ma was reportedly seen by several people playing his cello alone outside the Russian Embassy. A lone cellist, playing in protest to the violence.

It is reminiscent of the protest by Vedran Smailovic 30 years ago during the 1992 Bosnian war. Smailovic was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera at the time and witnessed a bombing that killed 22 people. So, the next afternoon, dressed in his formal concert attire, Smailovic set up in the place where the shell had burst and he played Albinoni Adagio in G Minor. He returned day after day to the same place to play the same piece. He played for 22 afternoons while the war ravaged the city around him. He played one day of music for each person killed in the explosion.

Blessings upon cellist Yo-Yo Ma this week for reminding us of this act of courage and defiance, of protest and beauty, this prayerful call for peace and dignity in the midst of violence and destruction.

A reporter had asked Smailovic 30 years ago, what he was doing, what he hoped to accomplish, if he might not be a little crazy – risking his life to play his cello in the middle of the street in the middle of a war day after day. Smailovic responded:

“You ask me if I am crazy for playing the cello. Why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

Let us be grateful for the reminders we find in these days. Reminders that we need not be drawn into responding to violence with more violence. Reminders of courage and human dignity, reminders that offering beauty in the midst of violence can be an act of prayer and of protest. We are still here. We still care about our world. The human spirit is stronger than this war, and peace will prevail on earth.

O Spirit of life, God of us all

We gather for healing and for peace this day

We see conflict in the world and indeed even in our own hearts

We long to build a peaceful world and to be a peaceful people

We pray: may we be restored and made whole

We pray for peace in the world,

for peace among all nations and people

For peace in our neighborhoods

and in our families and for peace in our hearts

But not only for peace, O God, we pray also

For hope and human dignity, for grace and strength to lift us up

With humble voices we lift our hearts seeking a balm

When we are discouraged help us know we strive not in vain

Fill us, O Spirit with faith and with courage

And with the audacity to believe we can make a difference

And that peace will one prevail on earth.

In the name of all that is holy

We pray

May it be so

The Colorblind Confusion

The Color Blind Confusion

Rev. Douglas Taylor

February 27, 2022

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/vV708zI9UXc

I understand the confusion, the color blind confusion. I do. Being color blind seems like the pinnacle of equality. Surely it is a good quality. Being color blind is about treating all people the same without regard for race or ethnicity. It is to say – I will not treat you differently simply because you have a different skin color than me. Our congregation’s bylaw document has that now-standard non-discrimination clause:

“… the full participation of persons … without regard to actual or perceived race, class, color, culture or national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or physical or mental challenge.”

Our Unitarian Universalist principles and values include the call for equity, for treating ALL people with inherent worth and dignity.

It is also one of the tenets of our American legal system that all are equal under the law. It was a central point of the 1960’s civil rights movement – that everyone be treated equally. Dr. King, in his landmark speech, said

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And it almost seems like all this focus on the color of our skin is the problem; wouldn’t it be better if we could all be color blind. King asked us to focus on the content of each other’s character instead of the color of each other’s skin. Even the great Dr. King wants us to all be color blind.

Except … to reach that conclusion, one must ignore the context of that famous quote. One must misunderstand the whole point of the speech and the rally and the moment in history that is the context of that quote by Dr. King.

The problem is that being color blind is a form of ignoring important aspects of a person’s identity and experience. Being color blind claims there are no race-based differences and in so claiming, ignores and refuses to deal with the reality of those differences. Being color blind is to pretend systemic racism does not exist which is essentially to be complacent and complicit with that racism.

What Dr. King was calling for was a change in the system. The context of that amazing quote from Dr. King is that he wanted the nation to pay attention to the problem of racism. He wanted the nation to live out the noble principles in its founding documents rather than keep acting terribly toward black people and other minorities. Fast forward a few decades and people have twisted King’s words into an excuse to pretend everything is equal now.

Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist, author, lawyer, poet, and priest. Her name is credited in our order of service for some of the worship elements. She earned degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Berkley. She came of age during World War I, raised by her maternal grandparents in North Carolina. Thurgood Marshall, when he was still chief counsel of the NAACP, “called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and color, the “bible of the civil rights movement.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_Murray Murray was a co-founder of NOW – the National Organization of Women, a strong influence on Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many now retroactively credit her with being non-binary and transgender long before such terms were in common use.

Pauli Murray was hugely influential in a multitude of human rights issues over the course of several decades and yet almost no one knows about her. There is a documentary about her life worth watching. Why has she been so forgotten?

Do you remember the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education? It was meant to desegregate our schools, to give children access to opportunity without regard to race or color. Did it work? Decades after Brown v Board of education, our public schools are still effectively segregated because our neighborhoods are still effectively segregated. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/24/how-after-60-years-brown-v-board-of-education-succeeded-and-didnt/ We can successfully predict more about a child’s upward mobility by their zip code than by their SAT score or if their parents read to them each day. It doesn’t take much to uncover the reality of inequality in our country. Why would we pretend there is not a racial component connected to that inequality?

It is necessary to look at what is going on with a critical lens. To challenge ideas that try to ignore real problems. Here is another example, we all know we abolished slavery in our country, right? The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, right? Wrong. I was taught that it did. But when we read the language of the amendment, we find this:

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.

So, slavery is still permitted in our country under certain conditions. That’s not the same as saying slavery is abolished. Our mass incarceration system is a continuation of slavery. It says that in our constitution. And if we pretend that we are color blind, we’ll completely miss the racist implications of who is filling our prison cells. It is necessary to look at what is going on with a critical lens. To challenge ideas that try to ignore real problems.

These examples, Pauli Murray, Brown v Board of Education, and the 13th Amendment, they lead me to the topic of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory, or CRT, became a hot button issue over the previous year, largely as a form of distraction to stir up a conservative base. A study https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-obsession-critical-race-theory-numbers showed that Fox News had mentioned Critical Race Theory almost 2,000 times in a 3-month period in the spring of 2021. That breaks down to about 20 times a day for 90 consecutive days.

But with all that hype, most people did not really know what CRT actually was. Simply put, Critical Race Theory legal theory related to constitutional law and other related law issues. More specifically, it states that our societal institutions have had racism baked into how they function. It focuses on the legal aspects of institutional racism. Our criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system are all “laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.” https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory/

Critical Race Theory is a legal concept. It started with legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others in the 1970’s talking about the need to look critically at our legal system in terms of race.

Are the purportedly race-neutral documents and laws actually race-neutral? Were they ever meant to be? Is their impact such? Do our U.S. laws alleviate or perpetuate racism? Rather than accept the legal stance of race-neutrality at face-value, CRT asks us to think critically about it.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice the big cultural argument about CRT is whether or not it should be taught to our children in our public schools. The sensational claim was that our children were being indoctrinated with CRT, that white kids were being taught to hate themselves. Which is just so wildly inaccurate as to be obvious fear-mongering. And yet, people bought into the fear. 

Again, CRT is about legal theory related to constitutional law. CRT per se is not taught in our K-12 public school systems. Not really. But critical thinking is. And the word ‘Critical’ is the key because it is used the same in CRT and when we are talking about ‘critical thinking.’

Our Unitarian Universalist values do indeed call us to treat ALL people with inherent worth and dignity, to promote equity in human relations. And … Our faith calls us to promote justice and liberty and truth. Never forget that one about truth. A key value for us is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

When we look at a religious text, we weigh it against our experiences and against reality as we know it. When we read, for example, in the Koran: “The heavens, We have built them with power. And verily, We are expanding it” (51:47); that can sound pretty cool and rather modern. But we also recognize that when the Koran was written, the scientific concept of an expanding universe was not a viable theory yet. But it does provide an opening between our modern scientific understanding of the universe and Islamic faith today.

When we read, for example, in Christian scripture about how Jesus calls Peter the “rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16); yet we know there was no Christian church at that point, we can recognize this as an addition by a later editor – something that evidently happened quite a bit to Christian Scripture as it took shape.

We don’t take such texts at face value. We interpret them through their context. We weigh them based on who the original hearers were, what was the historic situation, did the author have an agenda they were trying to convey?

And Unitarian Universalists promote these same values in the public sphere, not just in our religious explorations. Critical thinking is a value we strive to bring when we are taking in the news and current affairs, not just ancient religious texts.

When presented with the issue of being color blind, for example, we can acknowledge the noble goal of equality; but we are not let off the hook by the ideal. We are drawn to ask:

Who benefits from presenting an issue this way or that way? Does a particular law or practice actually accomplish what it was created to accomplish? Who is included in this version of our community and who is left behind when we pretend to not consider a person’s skin color?

As people of faith, this is important to us. It is important for us to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The ‘critical’ part of Critical Race Theory is a key piece of how we engage with the world. 

Shifting gears and digging in a little more, the conservative argument against CRT is against an applied version of CRT in our schools. The applied version takes the basic tenets of the theory and applies them to history and education. Central to this, as I’ve already stated, is the idea of institutional racism and white supremacy. The conservative argument goes on to say the implication is that all white people, and white children of course, are taught that they are oppressors while all black people, and black children of course, are taught that they are victims.

I have said before and think it bears repeating – if your anti-racism work centers around making white people feel bad then you’re doing it wrong. I may feel bad, that may still happen; but it’s not the goal. I may feel bad as a white person, as an American, when I learn about the Tulsa race massacre or about the prevalence of lynching – but that’s not the point of the work. The point of the work is for us to grapple with the atrocities so we may be bold in making changes for a better society.

The people banning Critical Race Theory make it sound like the goal is to make all white people feel bad about themselves. That’s simply not true. I believe that is a cipher, a coded way to stir up the conservative base. The real goal of CRT is to fix the structures in our society that continue to disadvantage and harm people of color.

As Unitarian Universalists we are committed to building a more just and beautiful world together. We are committed to not being color blind so much as color celebrating – to celebrating our differences, leaning in to the unique ways we each experience this life. We are committed to grappling with injustices, sifting through discomfort for the sake of a better world together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Widening the Circle

Widening the Circle

Rev. Douglas Taylor

February 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!

-Edwin Markham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a world without end, may it be so.