Worship Wave of the Future

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Worship Wave of the Future

Rev. Douglas Taylor


I was talking with someone from another church community recently about how thankful he was for the online worship services folks are doing. He said it made it possible for a friend of his to attend who had not been able to attend for several years due to a severe mold allergy combined with the relatively mild levels of mold in their old church building. On Zoom, his friend has not missed a Sunday and loves being back in the community.

I was talking with someone else this week about how they find the online worship to be stilted and flat. She appreciates the effort, she assured me, and will keep showing up; but she longs for face-to-face contact again. The intellectual stimulation is nice, but the community is missing.

Another friend was lamenting the difficulty of hosting their pagan rituals online. They laughed about their shift from an earth-centered practice to a technology-centered practice. They smiled wistfully when they explained to me that even online in our separate houses, we are all still in the same universe. The energy each person puts out will always find its way even if we are not in the same room breathing the same air.

My sermon today is a companion to one I delivered back in the spring based on Arundhati Roy’s piece “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” https://douglastaylor.org/2020/05/12/standing-in-the-doorway/  In that piece Roy wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

This pandemic has had an impact on our worshiping community. Here we are online. This pandemic has pushed us to ‘break with the past and imagine [our] world anew.” We pivoted our worship services online instead of in-person for our health and the continuing health of others in our community. This spring, the Board, in consultation with the UUA and current scientific recommendations, voted to plan to remain worshiping online through this coming church-year, through until May 2021.

Let me unpack that a little. The Board’s intention is not to lock us into doing online worship and online everything for the next full year. Only that we are planning for things to be online. When it is safe to meet in person, we will do so. If it is safe to meet for worship in-person before May 2021, then we will shift our plans. But for now, our planning revolves around us staying online for worship for the coming year.

At our recent Board Retreat a week ago we began plans for a ‘reopening team,’ a group of thoughtful people to advise the Board about when and how we can host in-person activities throughout this coming year.

Worship is a very risky activity for a variety of reasons; but a small group of people meeting outside, masked and socially-distanced … that is a manageable risk in many people’s minds. We’re looking into what we can host and how we can offer some in-person activities as we go forward.

What we do at this point will necessarily be different from what we have been doing in-person all along. (Mark 2:21) “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.” For a while back in the spring I tried hard to keep doing all the things we had been doing – but do them online. I discovered that does not work. We need to find new ways to do these things. We need patchwork garments that will not rend and tear from our simple use.

All of which brings me around to the article we used for our reading this morning https://careynieuwhof.com/the-original-2020-is-history-7-new-disruptive-church-trends-every-church-leader-should-watch/ and the author’s suggestion that churches need to shift their mindset away from being a physical community with an online presence to becoming a digital community with a physical presence. We need to get a new garment – to carry that metaphor along – instead of patching the old one in the new setting. And I don’t agree. I think Carey Nieuwhof is a very wise preacher and church trend observer I think Nieuwhof is smart and perceptive. But I also think he is wrong on this point.

I resonate with Nieuwhof when he writes that a crisis such as this pandemic “is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.” The seven trends he listed are not wildly new ideas, they are just wildly accelerated ideas. He talked about things like valuing flexibility and agility in our church staff teams during this disruption. That makes a lot of sense to me. He talked about how this pandemic is compounding the long trend we have been on from denominational allegiance, or ‘brand loyalty’ if you will. I think his comments about the trend toward home-based spirituality instead of ‘church-building-based’ spirituality are spot on. We’ve been working on that for a while in our community. I will admit, the only part of his predictions I did not agree with is the part I had our Worship Associate read to you – that part about needing to become a digital organization with a physical presence.

I mean, obviously, here we are. We are functioning as a digital organization while our physical presence is under renovation! Obviously, we are putting a lot of energy into our website and our capacity for zoom meetings and our digital communications. And obviously we are not going to stop doing those things when we can get back in person. We know now how to offer a live online version of our worship; we are not going to forget how to do it when we are back in our building.

And Nieuwhof is right when he says the digital connection is better for some people, giving greater access to those who are hindered by distance or timing or illness. He’s right on that count. But here is where I think he is off base.

He draws the comparison of retail stores in a mall and retail stores online. He warns that brick-and-mortar businesses are learning that you can’t compete unless you invest deeply in the online digital sales as well. And, the stores that really thrive are the ones the live online primarily. By that comparison, Nieuwhof is saying religious communities need to do the same.

But that is precisely where he loses me. What are we selling? What is this congregation’s product? He is comparing religious communities to businesses that sell books and t-shirts. He’s buying into the idea that religion is basically a transactional experience – an exchange, I’ll give you this much in exchange for that product I value. I’m buying in, I’m just a consumer here. Religious community, many argue and I agree, is not a transactional experience but a transformational one. There is no commodification of your encounter here. Sure, we ask for money, we ask for a financial pledge. That’s probably why it seems transactional. But there is scale of fees for what we are doing together.

What would we be selling? I know that some Christian churches will say their product is dogma, their business is beliefs. To put it crassly, they are in the after-life insurance business. I would argue that is not true for even most Christian churches and it is definitely not true for our Unitarian universalist community.

To lean into that language, we can say our business is relationships. Our product is community. And Nieuwhof is suggesting religious communities shift their efforts to become a digital organization to better sell our product. Yes, there is a version of that available online and in virtual space. Yes, the energy we put out into the universe will always find its way even if we are not all in the same room breathing the same air together.

But the heartbeat of it is in in-person, face-to-face encounters. Our faith community is focused not on beliefs or dogma or the special way to get into heaven. Instead we are focused on being companions with each other on our spiritual journeys. Our mission is centered on actions and experiences we have in community together.

Can we do that online. Yes, mostly, kind of. But not completely.

I am certain this pandemic will leave a lasting mark on our community going forward. We will continue to have online class offerings. We will make sure people can donate money electronically. We will be sure to have videos of our services available on our website. And there will be an easy way to allow people to zoom into activities like committee meetings and classes as we go forward.

And, we will always return to in-person gatherings when possible, where we can touch hands, where we can better read each other’s body language, where we can sit in shared silence together listening to our communal breathing, where we can have eye contact that is not stymied by screens. Because our business is relationships, our product is community.

In short, we will do both. But I am convinced we will always have a need to gather together in person. Human touch is too basic a human need to forgo. And at the same time, we will never stop doing all we can to stay connected to the people who can’t show up physically. It is part of our commitment to be a community together. What works for one will not be the answer for everyone else.

For now, by necessity and compassion, we are online. We keep our connections, but we are not simply holding our collective breath until we can breathe together again. We are forging new connections and building community with every tool we can. That’s what we do. That’s why we are here. And here, we will always be.

In a world without end.

May it be so.

The Heron and the Despair (2)

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The Heron and the Despair

Rev. Douglas Taylor

August 16, 2020

In the Qur’an it is written:

Behold!  In the creation of the heavens and the earth;

In the alternation of the Night and the Day …

In the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth …

[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise. (2.164)

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people proclaim not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  In various scripture we see reference to the natural world not only as a place to uncover lessons for living, but also as a wilderness that will test us.  Nature is sometimes cast as the place of temptation or a place where we get lost.  Nature is also presented in fairy tales as a dangerous place yet also a place where we must go to grow up.  The mountain top, the desert, the woods and the wilderness each carry a metaphoric or mythic tone that the actual natural locations can truly convey.

I have always loved nature, and growing up I spent a lot of time out in the woods.  My woods were not dangerous or challenging, however.  My woods were a source of centering and healing. 

I grew up among the glacier carved hills just south of Rochester NY, in a place called Bushnell’s Basin.  Across the street from my house the neighbor’s back yard dropped down several dozen feet to a broad lowland of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles. The land was not useful for development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the woods.

In Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman describes how it sometimes felt for me.  He writes:

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

There is something about the words of poets like Whitman that can capture and articulate my spiritual yearning in ways no theology or dogma can grasp.  Unitarian minister and activist John Haynes Holmes writes:

Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas and the saviors of the race, and God – whoever God may be – has at one time or another reached my soul.

For me, finding the writings of Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Chief Seattle, has led me to a deeper understanding of my spirit.  Naturalists, poets, and great orators through the ages help me to articulate and integrate my experiences of the natural world and the rumblings within my own soul.  Yes, the words are often about flowers and birds and sky and sea, but they are also about my spirit and about God and about life lived with a fullness.

THERE was a child went forth every day;  And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.  

Those woods around my house became an indelible part of my soul for stretching cycles of years.  What have you looked upon?  What has held your attention and therefore defined some of who you are?  What do you feed your soul?  Or, what do you feed your soul when you have too much of the world?  For me, as a child, it was mostly the Flats.  It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home, like it was a second home.  When things were chaotic at home – or more often just empty at home – I would go out to the woods.  I was having a share of the chaos imprinted on my soul, and the emptiness.  It was good for me to also have a base of nature imprinted there as well.

I don’t want to paint my home life growing up as all bad.  There were moments; but I think over all I am a fairly typical ‘adult child of an alcoholic household.’  Time spent in nature became my spiritual touchstone. 

From time to time as a congregation we host conversations about how to handle difficult times.  Our discussion went into specifics, “What do you do when you are in the midst of the hard times? What helps?”  Well, if we give theologians the day off and let only the poets and naturalists speak, I think Wendell Berry’s poem about the heron and the despair gets as close as possible for me. 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I do that from time to time.  I wake at night worrying, fearful of the trouble and danger in the world, concern for ‘what my life and my children’s lives may be.’  I worry some nights about the world my children are growing up in.  For me, as is implied in Berry’s poem, the extra concern for the lives of my children is something that puts it over the edge for me into the realm of despair.  I had despair for the world growing in me before I had children, don’t get me wrong.  And I don’t think people without children don’t understand or experience this sort of anxiety and heartache.  But for me, it was having children that raised my worry to a level that included others.  It became about more than just my own private fears and concerns. 

Because ultimately what I’m talking about, what I think Wendell Berry is talking about is bigger that the fear for my life and what my children’s lives may be.  It’s about the world and what’s gone wrong.  Dealing with greed and injustice, heartbreak and cruelty is hard enough.  Helping my children learn to deal with it too is that much harder.  And as an outgrowth of that, my concern grows beyond myself and my children to include all people around me that I care about.  I want to make the world a better place for everyone I care about, and I also want to strengthen everyone I care about to be better able to get through the hard times. 

So Wendell Berry feels this too, and what does he do? He says:

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I remember doing that as well.  I didn’t have herons and drakes there in the Flats.  But I remember going out to those woods around my house when I was old enough to think of it as ‘communing’ with nature. I would go with the express purpose of calming down and getting grounded.  I did find wood drakes and loons, though, in the Stillwater lakes around Camp Unirondack.  And the heron … I’ve probably told the story a dozen times of the time I was up at Unirondack as a young man, sitting on the dock in the early morning when a heron flew onto the lake and nearly settled on that same dock where I sat meditating.  It glided past me less than a foot from my shoulder while I sat breathless.  I could see the blue feathers, the curve of its neck, the black of its eye as it swept silently past me and sailed low over the water back across the lake away from me and out of sight.

Even just remembering the experience brings to mind the profound feelings I had of connectedness and peace in that moment.  Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since that encounter stopping at lakes and looking for birds and listening to the ringing in my soul.

What is it about such experiences that change them from seeing another bird as you go through your day to seeing through to the depth of living?  Perhaps it is simply an openness on our parts that might fit any moment that can slip in and crack us open all the way.

This morning outside I stood

And saw a little red-winged bird

Shining like a burning bush

Singing like a scripture verse

It made me want to bow my head

I remember when church let out

How things have changed since then

Everything holy now

I have had a handful of encounters like that which have changed me, transformed me, or deepened my sense of the world and my place in the world.  Peter Mayer’s song says it so beautifully.  I do see that everything is holy now. 

And I want to talk about God in everything; but the word ‘God,’ on the tongues of too many people, is too small a word for what I need it to mean. So for today, let the theologians hush while the poets speak of grace and suffering, beauty and despair.  Let the poets tell us something of what this experience has meant: the peace, the presence, the abiding sense of place that I find with the heron in the face of despair. 

Despair is an isolating experience.  Misery and worry turn me inward, cutting me off from my otherwise natural resources.  Experiences I carry in my heart of being in nature open me up, open me outward, open me to my connectedness. Wendell Berry’s poem says

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

I come into the presence of that stillness and that stillness calms my soul.

Whenever I am on Retreat – a ministers’ retreat or a writers’ retreat – I make an effort to go out and find a wild place.  Usually this means woods and lakes where I can wander around.  I remember a retreat from a few years back that was in Florida on the Gulf Coast. I was unsure what to do with beaches and the big expanse of ocean or gulf.  My spirit has always been well nourished by green branches and big hills, rambling creeks and still water.  Wendell Berry’s poem talks of coming into the presence of still water.  But as I stood on the beach with that wide open, ever-rolling water, that expansive, breathing water that is never still – I discovered that my spirit is nourished by water in motion as well as the still water.

The peace and calm that carries me through my trouble and drains my despair of its power, that peace is not simply the peace of still water and the memories of quiet, idyllic nature.  The real power of such experiences is in tapping into the rhythm of life itself.  It’s not the stillness, though it can feel that way for me at times.  It is not the stillness; it is instead the even rhythm.  The motion and the stillness belong to each other, the song and the silence together.

This is the lesson I learn from the natural world.  It is not the only lesson it has to offer.  But it is the healing one I learned to trust as a child.  Where have you gone for healing and renewal?  Your spirit needs nourishment, what do you feed yourself of beauty and love?  Where do you turn when worry and despair creep too close to your heart?  Wendell Berry goes to where the heron feeds; he goes into the presence of still water.  “And I feel above me the day-blind stars,” he writes, “waiting with their light.”

What an illuminating metaphor, “the day-blind stars.”  What guides do you seek out that are normally hidden?  The stars are here all day long, shining their light, hidden by the brilliance of the sun.  A life of the spirit can be like that too, present within you all the time though hidden within the ordinariness of living. What do you do to rediscover your center?

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water. 

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grace.  I rest in the grace of the world.  I need more grace in my life.  Let all those simple meanings of the word pour over you when you hear this line: grace as the unearned love of God, grace as the gracefulness of a dancer, grace as the gratitude offered before a meal, grace as the extra time offered beyond what is expected, grace as a gift.  For a time I rest in the grace, the extra time, the gratitude, the elegant dancing movement.  I rest in the grace of the world. 

When I rediscover my center, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I feed my spirit on beauty, I rest in the grace of the world.  When I find healing and renewal then I rest in the gratitude, the elegant movement, the extra time, the gift – of the world, and am free.  When despair for the world grows in me I know what I can do to be free.  It is not fail-proof, but it works often enough to be nearly so. 

All the world over, in scripture and in poetry through the ages, people have proclaimed not only how good the earth is and how blessed but also how we can learn from it.  “[Here] indeed are signs for a people that are wise.”  Take the time to step aside to rediscover your center. 

Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is grace to be found down by the still water where the wood drake rests in his beauty and the great heron feeds.  Perhaps for you as it is for me, there is memory and poetry and calm to be found just a breath away from the turmoil of the day.  Perhaps when despair comes creeping into your heart, and fear for what your life and the lives of those you love may be, there is yet a way for you to let the fear slip by and the despair to leak all its power away because you have found the way back into the woods where your spirit is nourished and your heart is healed and you can rest for a time in the elegant movement of life, and be free.

In a world without end,

May it be so

Thoreau-ing It All Away

File:Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond and his statue ...

“Thoreau-ing it all away”

Rev. Douglas Taylor

6-21-20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0hivXvgOuw

He said he went into the woods on purpose. He wanted solitude, he wanted to dig down deep into the nature of life itself and ‘suck the marrow’ he said – to touch the center; so, Henry David “social distanced” himself for two years, two months, and two days at Walden. I do hope the isolation impact of Covid-19 will not last as long two years, two months, and two days. That’s just too long. But perhaps, for us after these three months and change, we can begin to uncover some lessons. Perhaps there are some things we can learn from Thoreau about navigating the solitude and the distance we now keep as we travel through these pandemic times.

So, the caveat we must offer as we talk of Thoreau is that he was not, in fact, isolated or on lockdown the way many of us have experienced these past few months. Thoreau had a good bit of company through his time at Walden; he often took meals with his friend Mr. Emerson, for example. And there is that delightful factoid that his mother did his laundry on occasion.

Mr. Thoreau was not alone or truly isolated at Walden. He writes about having three chairs in the little house.

…one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.

He went on to notice,

It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof.

The point for Thoreau was not to run away from society, but to step back from it to better understand his relationship to it. For that, I think we can still glean some wisdom although our situation, from his, differs.

Solitude was a goal for Thoreau, but not the full goal. Separation and space in which to think through his own thoughts – that was what he aimed to find: room to think. We, on the other hand, have been thrust into this separation and solitude by the pandemic; by necessity and compassion we keep our distance. But perhaps, since we are isolated, we may turn our thoughts now and then to the places Thoreau was wont to let his mind ramble.

Let us settle ourselves, (he wrote) and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality…

One of the more remembered lines from Walden is his declaration that he went to the woods “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, … to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” He sought the solid ground, the firm bottom upon which he could stand – reality.

It was not solitude so much as simplicity that he wanted. Solitude was a means toward that goal. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” he shouts at one point in the test, “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” This now certainly is a fitting bit of wisdom I am trying to live. Simplicity.

This pandemic has narrowed my focus. I have not disappeared into the woods, fronting only essential facts of life. But I have felt winnowed into a few recurring topics: resistance, resilience and a reevaluation of what matters most. Unlike Thoreau, I did not choose this social fasting. Yet like him, I am finding this isolation an opportunity to settle in and consider how I spend my life.

How do you spend your life? What matters to you? Has this pandemic time raised to your awareness questions of this sort? Let me put it like this: In the opening chapter of the book, Thoreau takes pains to outline the economy of his endeavor. He details the cost of the nails while noting how he borrowed the ax. He lists out the cost of the seed while accounting the market value of the beans when harvested. But he is not really telling us about the beans and the nails as he is telling us about himself. Thoreau puts such details of his financial spending as backdrop to explore the moral and spiritual spreadsheet of his living.

He saw civilized society around him stuck in the consumption-driven capitalism which he detested. Were Thoreau to witness our times, he would likely rant even harder against the ridiculousness of the Dow Jones and the GDP when compared to his simple bean field. Or think of it this way: the earth, Thoreau might remind us, has its own economy revealed here in 2020 as the machinations of our global economy have stumbled through the slowdown. The planet has a cleaner and truer economy than anything Wall Street might offer.

What is it worth? What are the really important things? Thoreau went to the woods to hunt that out. We’ve been in an isolation ourselves and some things are rising in our national attention of late that may indicate we have some inklings of the answers as well.

I suspect it is not a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few weeks have had such an impact and have really begun to move the needle on the issue of racism in our country and around the world. I suspect it is not happenstance – that, instead, the global experience of solitude has simplified and clarified matters of importance for many people. How quickly the resistance did swell, how sustained the outrage has been through these weeks.

It is worth noting that when Thoreau left Walden, he published Civil Disobedience well before he published Walden. In the end, his experiment at Walden was not an escape from society; it was about the economy all along – again, not of the beans and the nails, but the moral and spiritual spreadsheet of a person’s soul. That is what the solitude can offer if you will let it.

Thoreau, at the end of Walden, wrote:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” 

Walden is regularly paired with his essay on Civil Disobedience because they are two sides of the same coin. We are meant to see them as such. As many of us can perhaps attest – solitude and reflection lead us into action, into resistance against injustice, particularly against unjust authority. Our time of pandemic social distancing has primed us into a heightened readiness to rail against systems of oppression and wonton acts of violence.

What else are we to do? Most of us, by necessity, are tapped into the heartbeat of connection through our computer screens. And the world is pouring in through those screens showing us the cruel reality of racism and police brutality. “And if it proved to be mean,” he wrote, “why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” Well, here we have witnessed some certain meanness of life published through the cellphone videos again and again.

What else are we to do? The natural conclusion of the Walden-esque experience ought to be the full-throated call for resistance in the face of injustice – the call to refuse unjust laws and unjust authority. What else are we to do with this isolation but wrestle with what matters most in life and how we are to play our role in society going forward.

We are not done with this life of social distance but another life of social engagement calls to us all the same. What matters to you? What is it worth? At what cost, your health, your standard of living, the lives of the vulnerable, to soul of our nation? At what cost? How will you spend your life?  

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; (Thoreau wrote in Walden’s conclusion) that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; (And here, I draw your attention to what he writes next) new universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.” 

This, this argument of a higher order by which our laws are judged, by which we test if something is just, this is the root argument of his essay of Civil Disobedience. And herein lies the lessons I find from Thoreau for today. The time I spend now in solitude a step away from society is an opening for me and all of us to go down to the depth with the questions of what matters most and how we spend ourselves in this life. When we simplify, when we clear the clutter of our lives – the cry to rise up against all that insults life and squanders the great gift we live, is a cry we find summoning us to stake a claim in the moral landscape of our shared living.

Walden was never about escape. It is the calm preparation before the time of action, as when the civil rights activists would kneel in prayer before standing up to march in the streets. We are in Walden today. We are isolated, although not by some plan of our own – yet here we are, Let us use this time wisely.

May your solitude be a time of reckoning with all that matters most to you. May you find focus in the themes of resistance, resilience and a reevaluation of what matters most. May you come forth from this isolating pandemic ready to answer the summons. For we, my friends, have several more lives to live.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Rowing for Home

File:Winslow Homer - Rowing Home - Google Art Project.jpg ...

Rowing for Home

Rev. Douglas Taylor



My original intention with today’s sermon was to dive into the question of how this pandemic will likely impact the way we worship and ‘do church’ together as Unitarian Universalists into the future. What I discovered over the course of writing it is that today’s sermon is focused a little more tightly than that. How will this pandemic impact the ways we do the justice work of the church into the future.

Right about now, a number of activists in our community are gathering at the Binghamton High School to march over to Rec Park, protesting for justice for George Floyd who was murdered by police last week on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. This is in the national spotlight because recording police interactions on our cellphones has become more prevalent. The officers involved were quickly fired; and many people, including the mayor of Minneapolis, called for more significant consequences. Tired of the lack of action, protestors set fire to the Minneapolis, 3rd precinct Police Department on Thursday. On Friday, Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with 3rd degree manslaughter, the beginning of what is sure to be a longer list of charges against him and the three other officers involved.

Do you remember the Black Panther movie from two years back (2018)? The marvel superhero film? Do you remember the opening scene? It starts, not in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, but in Oakland, CA. That’s significant to the meta-narrative because the Black Panther party in the US began in Oakland back in 1968. It’s the fiction’s nod to reality. But that’s not all. The opening scene from that movie is not set in 1968, it’s set in 1992. Why is that significant? Because of the ’92 race riots sparked by the acquittal of the four white police officers who viciously beat Black motorist, Rodney King during a traffic stop.

There is a lot of pain and grief rolling through the community. The protests happening around the country today are not only for George Floyd. They are for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice in 2014; for Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and the Charleston Nine in 2015; for Alton Sterling, Joseph Mann, and Philando Castile in 2016; and on the list goes. They are also for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade from these past few months. The protests are the accumulation of every frustration felt at the acquittals and excuses letting the murderers walk free in the past.

But something is changing. Like Ferrar Burns in the story from Annie Dillard; we’ve been rowing toward home all along and drifting further out into the channel and into danger. But the tide is turning. Something different is happening. We have to keep rowing toward home now. We have to row hard.

The public pressure by protestors nationally is having an impact lately. It may yet be possible to change the way this story keeps playing out – the old story where another black or brown person is murdered by a police officer or a white vigilante, and nothing much happens to the killers. But the response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, for example, is different. The response to the murder of George Floyd is different. Consequences are beginning to occur more regularly for the individual perpetrators. Society is less willing to just back down and be okay with the deaths. The killing hasn’t stopped, but the response has begun to change. And a big part of what has changed is due to public pressure.

What, if anything, does this have to do with the pandemic? What, if anything, does this have to do with the impact this pandemic has had on how we do our justice work as a congregation? I am not sure I can answer those questions yet – but those are questions bumping around inside my head all the same.

I’ve noticed that our Social Justice work has faded into the background lately. I’ve noticed we have a lot on our plate and a lot pulling our attention. I’ve noticed and worried about it. And I suppose a few months back when everything became about the pandemic and how to navigate the impact of this virus – justice work settled into the background even more. How can you do direct action, after all, when you can’t get together and directly act without putting your health and the health of those you would serve and partner with and support at risk?

This virus does not care if our cause is just. The gathering of assault-weapon-toting citizens calling for re-opening resulted in a noticeable number of them catching the virus. I expect there will be a similar result for the Black Lives Matter protestors in Minneapolis and other cities. It is particularly tragic given we are finally making some headway on this police brutality form of white supremacy. This pandemic is getting in the way.

This pandemic is hounding us as we try to deal with other things. The reality of it all is overwhelming. It is daunting and most of us have not processed the magnitude of what is happening. On May 10th, 3 weeks back, I preached on what the pandemic will mean for our country. At that time, we had 4 million cases worldwide; we have 6 million now. I reported the death toll at over 275,000 back then. Today it is 367,000 – 92,000 people have died around the world from Covid-19 just in these past three weeks. In the United States alone, we’ve crossed the 100,000 deaths threshold earlier this week and we’re at 105,000 deaths now.

And still, this one death of George Floyd has sparked the grief and frustration into outrage. So where does that leave us? As a liberal progressive faith community, our place is as allies and accomplices for justice. Our role is normally to show up. With the reality of the pandemic, that’s harder to do safely. But there are multiple ways to get involved.

I was talking with a group about this very point yesterday. I had the pleasure of leading a workshop online with about a dozen UU young adults. They were having their annual Unirondack Young Adult conference, but because the camp is closed and we can’t have in-person gatherings, they held the conference online. I offered a workshop on ethics. We began with some generic questions but soon shifted into discussing the situation in Minneapolis. 

We talked about police brutality and the myriad reasons to obey or not obey a law. We talked about the logic behind property destruction and the importance of knowing which communities your actions serve. One of the sources I shared with them was Ethicist Dr. Sharon Welsh who said, “a single actor cannot be moral.” One must be part of a community, grounded in a context.

My context is this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Our community is multifaceted and engaged in the issues at hand. We don’t all agree on each aspect of what’s going on, but we are together in our context and our compassion.

I suspect, if we will let it, this pandemic will push us to be more creative in how we do our justice work as a congregation. Some people will still choose to show up at a rally – with a facemask and proper social distancing please! Some people can’t afford that risk or will take other risks instead. Perhaps you will be part of the fundraising or of spreading the word to others; perhaps you’ll cook food or organize resources; perhaps you will read up on the background and unpack your own bias; perhaps you’ll be a teacher or hold safe space for someone to process as the struggle stretches on.

Maybe the impact this pandemic will have is to push us to be more creative in how we support each other and how we show up – even when we can’t actually show up.

For in the end, we are all just rowing for home. The injustice we fight against, the anger and grief and frustration are borne from the yearning to breath together without fear, the longing to live in a good community that takes care of its people. We’re all rowing for home. The tide is coming in. Now is the time for us to row harder and bring a new version of this tired old story into the world.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Cacophony and Symphony


A homily for Flower Communion

Rev. Douglas Taylor

May 24, 2020


Homily preceded by this Flower Ceremony Slideshow and Song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pArJOtflDc

The choir sang this song in October of 2007. “We Are One” by composer Brian Tate. It has been sitting on my computer as an mp3 file for more than a dozen years waiting for this moment. Every now and then I would listen to it while working on something else. It has given me joy and solace and uplift over the years. We are one, the song tells us.

When we stand. When we fall.

When we rise. We are one.

We’ve been through some hard times as a congregation. All congregations are going through hard times right now, and one thing we’ve learned over the years (which is the great secret of faith) is: we can get through difficulty together. Because we are one.

My title is “Cacophony and Symphony.” We have a lot of sound and noise in our lives and listening to the choir or a beautiful string trio or even the point and counterpoint of two birds outside my window in the morning – I know there is something powerful available to us when we hear each other and respond to each other with grace and appreciation. Our congregation is like the symphony – the blending of voices and instruments into a beautiful whole. I know it is possible and perhaps it is all the more amazing when set against the amount of noise we have with us as well.

A visual metaphor is more common for a homily on Flower Communion Sunday. Notice, not the bird song or the choir, but the flowers. The message is the same. We are a blend of beauty together. Each singing our own note and each blooming with out own beauty. But together we are an abundant bouquet to behold.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King talked about the choice between chaos and community. King witnessed the nation struggling to live into the true dream, struggling to allow the disparate voices blend into something beautiful and just. It is a painful truth to notice how often our voices do not blend and instead give rise to the cacophony of noise.

The news this holiday weekend has been about states re-opening and how some folks want church buildings to reopen early. Perhaps it is just the news I’ve tuned into, but it does seem discordant to my ear, like a clanging gong. The science tells us it is not safe to meet in person at this time. So, we will stay open as we have been all along and when it is safe to meet in person again, we will.

To help me get back on topic, my wife generously pointed out to me that flowers are opening up now too. As the refulgent spring around us opens from bud to bloom, my wife also helpfully added, “some flowers are poisonous, you know.”

So, yes – it breaks my heart to not be doing a real Flower Ceremony with you all. The symbolism is beautiful – each of you has a unique beauty to add to the mix. Each of you brings a flower to the service to symbolize that each one brings something to the table. Everyone takes a different flower home at the end of the service. Everyone receives something unexpected to take away with them. And … and to be blunt I don’t want any of you to receive this coronavirus as the unexpected thing you take away with you.

Another line from the choir song we just heard says, “And we shall care for each other with all our soul & our might.” Cacophony and symphony: chaos is certainly an option on the table. Discord and disease still walk our streets. But King knew that was not the only option, not the option most people wanted. We know it too. We know that we are here to care for each other with all out soul and our might. That’s what it means to still be open as a congregation.

So, I will send you all the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pArJOtflDc to listen to the song and watch the flowers slideshow again as often as you want. That’s what you get to take away today as a blessing to remind you of our community and of our faith.

And these words shall be forever within our hearts.

And we shall teach them to our children.

And remember them in our lives.

We are One.

In a world without end, may it be so.