The Arc of our UU Universe

What We Believe - Forward Together

The Arc of our UU Universe

11-14-21

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Anti-racism has become a central aspect of our faith tradition. It may seem a little odd to consider it that way, but have I not spoken for some time about how the center of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not found in beliefs and creeds, but in values. We are values-centric faith. And one of the values rising to the fore in our communal conversations is anti-racism and multiculturalism. We value justice, inclusion, and mutual respect. Thus, anti-racism has become a central feature of our values as Unitarian Universalists.

But that was not always the case. It is interesting really to think about the version of Unitarian Universalism we are living today and how we are sometimes tempted to think it has always been like this, that our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance has always led us to behave as we do today. But ask some of our long-term members and we’ll remind ourselves that ours is an evolving faith tradition. We grow, we change. This heavy emphasis on anti-racism is somewhat new.

In our reading, (from the introduction of Mistakes and Miracles,) the authors describe an event happening at General Assembly back in 2017. Rev. Peter Morales was our UUA president from 2009 to 2017, and 3 months prior to the end of his 8-year term, he resigned in a controversy of UUA hiring practices and charges of institutional racism. Those events and our association’s response contributed to the rise of the phrase “White Supremacy” among us. We in Binghamton participated in the national “White Supremacy Teach-in” back in the spring of 2017. I expect some of you can recall that time. It was a little messy. But then, Unitarian Universalism has struggled with racism for a long time.

I mentioned the issue with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy during the Time for All Ages. We Unitarians have loved him for his stance on the separation of church and state, for his commitment to the use of reason in religion, for his lofty words in the Declaration of Independence. For a long time, we simply didn’t talk about the contradiction and hypocrisy of his role in the slaughter of native people, of his owning of slaves, of keeping an enslaved mistress, and of not even doing that bare minimum of decency of freeing his slaves upon his death – several of whom were his children – all after proclaiming “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

In 1993 there was a significant event for Unitarian Universalists that cracked open a major conversation around old TJ. 1993 was the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Our UUA General Assembly was schedule to happen in Charlotte, NC, which at the time was located in the district named after Thomas Jefferson. The minister serving the Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Charlottesville, VA offered to do a workshop on “The most famous Unitarian in history.” People wanted to celebrate Jefferson’s legacy among us.

The GA planning committee suggested a celebratory ball in his honor, inviting people to wear period-costumes. They thought it would a bit of fun to have people attend dressed in costumes from the early American time period. It simply was not on many people’s radar that this idea might cause pain to black and indigenous people. Notably, Hope Johnson read a statement during the plenary which included the question, “Must African Americans such events in rags and chains?”

People countered saying that the event was intended to honor a luminary from our Unitarian history. People countered saying the good Jefferson embodied is still worth praising and to do so does not automatically make one a racist. The planning team responsible for hosting the Jefferson Ball tried to respond but the response dissolved into blame. One member of that planning team, Rev. Keith Kron, said this a few years later:

“We think of racism as being an overt thing,” Kron reflected. “As someone who had lived in the South and had seem as a 5th grader, my elementary school become integrated, I knew what racism was. And I was right. Or half-right. There are a lot of people who consciously want people of color to be second-class citizens. What I and the rest of the Planning Committee didn’t know at the time was that much of racism is not conscious – just part of the system, and you have to be awake to see it.”

I was in seminary a few years after these events and will offer the perspective that my entire time as a minister has been during the version of Unitarian Universalism debating multiculturalism, working to unlearn racism, and waking up to the ways white supremacy shapes our history and our values as a faith tradition. That’s the version of our faith I know professionally.

I remember a time early in my ministry when I had attended a conference on anti-racism and during an informal time, I was chatting with an elder UU lay-leader who was set against our attempts at diversity because he doesn’t want to dumb down Unitarian Universalism to win over black people. I was shocked by the ignorance and illogic of this argument, but learned as the years went by that this was a common argument against integration among us. It was a pattern.

I am reminded of the advice one of the co-presidents offered from our reading. In reflecting on how to move forward, Rev. Bill Sinkford commended us to “focus not on the persons but the patterns.” In this context, I am drawn to notice the patterns of our history rather than a single person – contemporary or historical – save as they reveal something about our patterns.

Are you, for example, familiar with the story of Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown? He was born in Jamaica, trained by Meadville theological school from 1910-12 to be a Unitarian minister, and launched the Harlem Unitarian Church in 1920. But he had little to no support in his ministry. The American Unitarian Association dropped him from fellowship in 1929 only to have it reinstated in 1935 with the support of the ALCU.

Unitarians at that time were not interested in supporting the spread of Unitarianism among black people. To be sure, there were white Unitarians who went against the tide, but the leadership of the association labeled African Americans as ‘lower class ‘shiftless rascals.’ (from Darkening the Doorways, ed Mark Morrison-Reed; p51) This claim that our faith is somehow inaccessible to ‘lesser’ people is an arrogant failing that continues to appear among us through the years. This, despite Rev. Brown being described as a radical leader offering thought-provoking sermons.

My contemporary colleagues have commented about this, how their sermons as people of color are critiqued as being too emotional – ‘too Jesus-y’ is a coded way of saying much the same.

Back in 1860, an incredibly rare example of an encounter before the 1900’s, the Rev. William Jackson applied to join the ranks of the Unitarian clergy in Bedford MA. After being in conversation with a Unitarian clergy friend, Jackson felt moved to become a Unitarian. He was denied. One historian from the ‘70’s produced a widely reproduced quote about the response:

The Unitarians took a collection … and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the ‘colored.’ (from Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians 1831-60, Douglas Stange; p 227)

And the Universalist have their own track record. There is an amazing and tragic story about what came to be called the Universalist Negro missions in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. Under the leadership of two dynamic African American Universalist, the church and the school connected to the mission bloomed and blossomed. The first leader died young and the next eventually left Universalism, being over extended and under-supported by the denomination.

The mission fell into the hands of the Rev. Joseph Fletcher Jordan, who became the pastor of St. Paul Universalist church in Suffolk VA and principle of the Suffolk Normal Training School for 25 years in the early 1900’s. Along with his wife, Mary Jordan, and later his daughter, Annie Willis, the Jordans brought the message of God’s love to countless people of color in Virginia. Support from the Universalist’s General Convention would ebb and flow through the years depending on who was in charge and who was paying attention. Not having another African American Universalist ready to step in, the mission faded away when Annie Willis died.

Similarly up here in New England, Jeffery Campbell attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY to become a Universalist minister. After graduation he officiated at his sister’s wedding and then moved to London, unable to secure a pulpit in this country as either a Universalist or a Unitarian in the 1930’s or ‘40s. The wedding he officiated for his sister was an interracial wedding to another seminary student, Francis Davis. Rev Davis, while being white, had no luck securing a Universalist pulpit either, due to his interracial marriage.

I suggest one pernicious pattern in this history among both our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors is a willful apathy and distain aimed to ignore the issue away. And so, I for one applaud the courageously called who have refused to fade away. I am grateful the issue and values of Anti-racism have worked their way into the center of our faith’s conversation and attention. I am please to acknowledge the change and the centering of those who had so long been pushed to the margins.

Years back now, Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker said:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” -Theodore Parker, 1853

So with all this evidence from our own history of hypocrisy and racism, what do are we to do? What do I do about this moral arc and the messy legacy of it all? Where do I as your minister look for evidence of this bending arc? I will share one final story.

I have mentioned the annual General Assembly of the UUA several times this morning. It is perhaps fitting to close my sermon with one more story for a General Assembly. This time from 2019, the Sunday Morning worship service. The preacher, the Reverend Marta Valentin, had finished – her sermon had been titled “It Is Time Now” and she had told us that we were in a ‘turning’ as a faith, a turning toward greater wholeness and justice and beloved-ness. She had told us that the hard path we are on of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural faith tradition, we are at a turning of the path. Things are changing.

At the end of the service, the choir began singing the postlude song by Karisha Longaker of the musical duo, MaMuse. The song says, “We shall be known by the company we keep, by the ones who circle round and tend these fires”

And the worship leaders all moved off to one side as other people began joining them on the large stage while the choir sang. First a few folks in scooters or using canes, then more people came up starting a second row behind those who had arrived a moment earlier.

“We shall be known” the choir voices rang out, “by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change alive from deep within the earth.”

And if it wasn’t clear before, no one would miss it now as more and more people arrived on stage. Here were the black, indigenous, and people of color who have been leaders in our faith tradition at this particular time in our history.

“It is time now,” the choir sang, “it is time now that we thrive.”

Here before us on the stage was a snapshot, a moment in time, revealing the active leadership in our faith who were not white. When I entered ministry in the late 90’s there were a handful of people of color in leadership in our faith. Here now were several dozen people filling the stage. Clergy and prominent lay leaders, elders and youth. And remember this was only those who were present at General Assembly that Sunday morning.

“It is time now, and what a time to be alive,” the choir sang. 

And we know it is not about counting up the diverse people and patting ourselves on the back for good numbers. It is about transformation and growth and becoming a little more like the Beloved Community each day. And what I witnessed on the stage that Sunday morning was about something new growing among us, something about leadership and change and love.

“In this Great Turning,” the choir sang, “we must learn to lead in love.”

And the choir sang, “In this Great Turning, we must learn to lead in love.”

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Look at All the Lonely People

A Song for the Lonely | Paris | Stefano Corso | Flickr

Look at All the Lonely People

Rev. Douglas Taylor

10-31-21

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

Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down in our country, there were people warning us about loneliness. Be careful, I remember hearing, we can’t let the social distancing lead us to social isolating. We must be mindful that steps to prevent the spread of viruses can also lead to consequences in terms of our mental health – in particular: loneliness. Some clever person along the way coined the phrase Lockdown Loneliness.

A study about loneliness and the impact of the pandemic came out about 6 months into it all, in the fall of 2020. The Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study focused on (unsurprisingly) the digital solutions available to us. The study touted the recommendation many of us were already working on – to manage our loneliness, they concluded, we need to maintain our social networks of family and friends through digital means. https://www.jmir.org/2020/11/e22287?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_1

We certainly tried. But online social connections are imperfect and lacking in a certain something. More than century back, French sociologist Émile Durkheim used the phrase “collective effervescence” to describe an emotional excitement people experience together in communal settings.

We would recognize this feeling from sporting events, concerts, theater performances, and religious ceremonies. There is something particular about the emotional aspect of a group experience. “Collective effervescence,” he called it. It is something that didn’t translate well over zoom.  Our efforts to maintain our social networks through digital means have ben worthy but they couldn’t cover for everything we were missing

The current US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has tackled the topic of loneliness as a public health concern. Not limiting his concerns to only the big concerns like the opioid epidemic and gun violence, Dr. Murthy has also singled out the dangers of loneliness among Americans. He said:

“Loneliness is different than isolation and solitude. Loneliness is a subjective feeling where the connections we need are greater than the connections we have. In the gap, we experience loneliness. It’s distinct from the objective state of isolation, which is determined by the number of people around you.” 

He is far from the first to clarify the difference between loneliness and being alone. But I do find his clarity about the distinction helpful. Solitude can be refreshing and quite enjoyable. But loneliness can be truly awful. In the gap between the connections we need and the connections we have, we experience loneliness.

Loneliness is not a new problem. In the late 1800’s Ella Wheeler Wilcox penned her poem ‘solitude’ with the opening stanza

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

Weep, and you weep alone;

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

But has trouble enough of its own

  • Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Solitude’

Loneliness has been known and felt through the ages. It is not just about the pandemic. There was, for example, a recent Cigna study of 20 thousand Americans on the topic of loneliness. I say ‘recent,’ but that is a relative term; the study was published two years before the current pandemic. The study found 46% of the participants reported they “sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

And it has long been noticed that loneliness leads to other problems. In an article from more than a decade back decade, we can read about how chronic loneliness can significantly contribute to other health problems. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.331.6014.138

Loneliness compromises your immune system and messes with both your cardiovascular and nervous systems. Studies have long found that “socially isolated people have shorter lifespans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression.” I find it is significant that what leads to such problems is not something objectively measurable such as the number of social contacts a person has. Instead, it is about the subjective feeling of loneliness.

And that is all from what we knew before the pandemic. Loneliness took on a noteworthy development with the call for lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing. And interestingly the impact of lockdown loneliness lingers even when restrictions are lifted. People have, when asked, reported that they are not ‘bouncing back’ like they used to, that negative moods last longer, that our resilience has been hampered despite the easing of restrictions. https://mental.jmir.org/2021/8/e29419?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=JMIR_TrendMD_0&__hstc=102212634.b6745b88e1d468273b08dfd17534f610.1635520374593.1635520374593.1635520374593.1&__hssc=102212634.1.1635520374594&__hsfp=2238041096

Have you felt lonely through this pandemic? Even now, after restrictions have eased? Have you experienced that gap between the connections we need and the connections you’ve had? Have you felt that bleak sadness of isolation and disconnection? Has it been bad for you?

Have you noticed that admitting to being lonely is like admitting a failure of some sort, like you are a loser, like you can’t handle it? Maybe that is less true in the current situation. Maybe that is a sign of just how many people are feeling isolated and lonely that the stigma of it has lost its sting.

As you’ve surely heard me say before, we are social creatures, we need each other to be fully ourselves. Isolation is a deeply painful experience. Anthropologically speaking, being isolated would have been a ‘chronic stress state.’ Loneliness is probably and experiential link back to that time when our species always lived and traveled in packs. Being alone would have led to a heightened ‘threat’ response, we would have been on high alert all the time; needing to rely on only our lone capacity to deal with predators or problems. Perhaps the experience of loneliness is a hold over from that time in our evolution when it as a survival issue.

It is important for our sense of wellbeing to have connections with other people, to have ties with groups. The past several sermons I’ve delivered have touched on this in one form or another. I imagine you’ve noticed. When we’ve been through this long, hard, isolating pandemic time, it might be hard to recall how to make connections again, to remember the ways we used to reliably reach out when we needed to find friends. We might be out of practice. Let us be reminded.

You know, you just know, that I am going to suggest the solution for loneliness is about getting more connected, reaching out and being vulnerable and taking risks to meet people and all that. And, I will suggest that, but I also know that that part is obvious and if that’s all we needed we all would have done that part already.

If we were making a list of ‘loneliness solutions,’ joining a group or organizations would be on anyone’s list. Get out and join a bowling league or a church or a hiking club. Yes. Or even better, volunteer somewhere; serve meals, or tutor underprivileged kids, or build ramps to create access for people. All of that. Yes.

And with the pandemic, those suggestions are harder to pursue. Many organizations are not able to offer opportunities like this to connect and serve. We’re getting closer, but it still is not quite safe. And, perhaps this is an invitation to get creative with how we connect and help others.

And seeing as we are here, I’ll make this pitch to everyone – not just those here who are feeling lonely. Reach out to someone because you might be lonely or because they might be lonely or simply because it is a kind thing to do. Make it a practice for the month of November – make a connection with someone every day. Send a card, make a phone call, deliver a plate of cookies. Make up a reason to reach out to someone. Try to do it every day for a week or several weeks. I’ll even offer this: if you send me a card, I’ll send one back. We can be creative with our connections.

And, remember, loneliness is not simply a problem of isolation. It is not just about needing to have more proximity with people. While many of us would benefit by that, it is not the whole point. Many of us have discovered that we don’t need constant company to ease our loneliness. A few brief, quality experiences can be profoundly sufficient.

Dr. Jeremy Nobel, a physician and public health researcher says; “Loneliness is a subjective experience—part of what makes it so hard to identify. If you’re on Mars and you have the most powerful telescope, that can look through walls, you can find all the isolated people on planet Earth. But you couldn’t find the lonely people.” Being alone is not the same as being lonely. An anonymous wit put it like this: “Being alone is good but being lonely is the worst”

All of that brings me to the big suggestion I would put on my list for dealing with loneliness. Make of it a practice in being alone. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive. I tremble a bit at the way it sounds. “Dr. I have been feeling lonely, what should I do?” “Well, have you trying being alone?” (sigh) But hear me out.

Some of what is going on in our lives is within our control to change. Some of it is not. If you find you are limited and cannot reach out the way you used to before the pandemic, you may as well spend the time leaning into your loneliness. There may be something else going on with it which you can uncover by spending time with it.  

For this, I suggest your goal is still to connect, but with yourself instead of with other people. Perhaps you will find yourself grappling with some bitterness or resentment or even guilt that you’ve been carrying. It can be uncomfortable spending time alone if you have unresolved stuff to deal with. Maybe this will be a path of self-forgiveness or to make overdue amends in some way.

It is often the case that time alone is time spent looking at things about yourself one would normally be able to avoid through distraction and an outward focus. But you’re stuck with yourself alone and end up gnawing on or being gnawed by old hurts and mistakes. Take care of yourself. Stay hydrated, get some sunshine, find a variety of activities, but do not neglect whatever it is that has been caught up for you with your loneliness. It is not necessarily the case, but it is true often enough. Chronic loneliness is often entangled with something else, a bitterness, a regret, a broken relationship or commitment. Not always, as I said, but often enough to warrant investigating.

Being alone can be a practice, a deepening time of self-awareness and self-discovery; a time of re-connecting with yourself. And, through that deeper self-connection, we are better situated for reaching out to connect with others. The key is not about how few or how many social interactions a person has. It is about the quality and meaningfulness of those interactions. Our loneliness is not about being alone. It is about being seen and known by others.

In response to that hundred old poem saying that when we weep, we weep alone; I offer an even old sentiment, dating back roughly two thousand years. Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome: Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. (Rom 12:15) Part of our work as a faith community is to share with one other in the celebrations and the burdens.

Yes, there is a part of your loneliness that you and only you can address, for loneliness is a singular experience in your heart. But there is also a community around you, surrounding and upholding us all. We are here to build a more just world, to explore religious ideas together, to celebrate the earth, to challenge hate and spread love. And … and we are here to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. That too is our work. 

May we be a blessing to others. May others be a blessing to us. May the blessings we have to offer spill out into the alleys and byways of life, and may we return laughing and rejoicing together.

In a world without end

May it be so.

Start with the Science

Quantum Physics Wave Particles - Free image on Pixabay

Start with the Science

Rev. Douglas Taylor

10-24-21

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/0jCN8x6HGR4

This past spring, while the pandemic was surging and our building renovation was about half done, I was invited into conversations with some theologians and philosophers in California through the Claremont Center for Process Studies. It was pretty cool to get that invitation. I felt a bit like the country doctor invited to sit in at a medical symposium in the big city.

It was enjoyable for me to reengage with Process theology again, to learn a bit more about it all. One piece I found most interesting is the Faith and Process goal of expanding the conversation beyond their usual Christian circles. Process Theology began within Christianity. I have appreciated that goal because I have the same goal. And I was included in their circle as a Unitarian Universalist because of that goal.

I recall an informal conversation at one point when several of the regular attendees were talking about how they were confused by the Unitarian Universalist Atheists in our mix. They had heard we UUs were excited about the version of Process Theology that did not have a God component. And they wondered together how that could be. How could you remove God from Whitehead’s basic theology?

Well, I was excited by this question. I think, in that informal chatting moment, I said something in response, but not anything all that helpful. I remember saying something about how I have seen a non-theistic version of Process Theology that makes a lot of sense. And that several people in my congregation have talked about it. And I may have said at the time that I felt the secret is to start with the science and go from there.  

Of course, before I go into detail about that, I need to give a little context. Process Theology is a modern theological offshoot of liberal protestant theology. It says that everything is in process, changing and becoming. The world, the universe, is wholly and fully natural and creative. The implication here is that God, also, is in process, is changing and becoming. In Process Theology, God is not outside of the universe. God is not immutable or supernatural. This is a God who is not judgmental or controlling; instead, God is creative and loving and part of the unfolding natural universe.

You’ll notice, perhaps, the description I’ve given is very God-centric. Fair enough. Here are some key characteristics of Process Theology that are not about God: Everything in interconnected. Everything is part of the natural universe. Human beings have full free will, there is no determinism. And the biggie: events are the primary building blocks of the universe, not substances. That last one about events is where the real fun and notable distinction settles in. 

The father of Process Theology is Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). He trained in mathematics, logic, and science, but he had a spiritual bent. He developed his metaphysics about 100 years ago.

His theology was rooted in the modern breakthroughs of physics and science which had undergone seismic shifts leading up to his lifetime. In the 1600’s the church served as the custodian of science. The Holy Roman Church provided a complete worldview for science that remained safely within the framework of biblical teachings. But with Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, the church began to lose it’s hold on the scope of scientific exploration. From that time through to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, scientific inquiry continued to break free from the church’s control.

So in the early 1900’s, when Newtonian Physics began to crumble under Einstein’s explorations, Alfred North Whitehead took a remarkable step. Instead of letting his science be confined within his religion, he let his religion be confined within his science.

Science was revealing some very interesting possibilities about the basic foundation of reality as we know it. And this circles back to that key idea in Process Theology about events being the primary reality rather than substances. This is an idea rooted in physics.

We tend to think of things as things, as substances. Traditional philosophy and physics talk about how the universe is made of substances. We are organisms made of organ systems which are made of tissues which are made of cells which are made of molecules which are made of atoms which are made of sub-atomic particles. As Physicist Richard Feynman once said “All things are made of atoms.”

But ‘things’ are not all there is to the universe. Yes, all things are made of atoms, but there is also energy, for example. In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes:

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.”

Energy is not a substance, not a thing. It is what exists between the things or in them perhaps, I don’t really know. But the relationship dynamic is essential. It is what makes that ‘mound of fine atomic dust’ into you. The relational interaction of the parts is what matters, (pardon the pun.)

The basic building blocks of life are not the things, but the relationships among the things. I am essentially, in physical terms, an organism of about 50 trillion cells. Each cell is differentiated into the various tissues and organs that make up the ten major systems of my body. But ultimately the important part is not any of those individual cells. The important part is the collection of relationships those cells have which comprise me.

There is a second big piece I need to add here to make sure we get where we are going this morning. A huge piece of Process Theology is our free will. Tying this back to the conversation about God, this comes out as God not being ‘all powerful’ and in control of the universe. We are really free to make choices about our lives. This comes out in the physics as well. The deeper scientists get into experiments trying to predict the orbit of an electron in an atom, for example, the more they are confounded because subatomic particles so often behave in very weird, almost chaotic ways. Expanding that up to the human level, and we’re talking about free will, choice, and agency. 

So we have these two big ideas found in modern physics and in Process Theology. One idea reveals interrelatedness, that the interaction of events is the essential element of life. The other idea that life is not predetermined, the between chaos and agency, we have free will to make choices in our lives.

Now let me tell you about ‘the lure.’ Because without the lure, everything is random and purely chaotic and yet somehow there is life.

In process Theology, God’s power is not a matter of control or dominance. God can’t make anything happen. But God is a loving power, a transformative power. God is persuasive, not coercive. God lures us toward the good, toward love, toward justice.

When we talk about how the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice … in Process Theology it would be bending because God is luring us to behave in more just ways. But in every case, it is up to us to be just.

You can think of the timeline of your life like a tree in winter. The trunk is a single line showing what has already happened, it is written. The rest of what will happen in your life has many branches of possibilities. In some theologies, God has already determined your whole life and this tree metaphor is more like a simple telephone pole to demonstrate that God has already written everything. It’s predetermined.

Process Theology strongly disagrees with that idea. Process Theology says instead that God is luring you to follow one branch in particular, but it is up to you to do that or not. When we talk about ‘living your best life’ it suggests there is a version we can choose that is better than other versions. We have options. And, we are drawn toward certain options. It is God luring us toward being and just and loving.

That is Process Theology. There is, of course, a great deal more to it, but for our purposes this morning, this is Process Theology. Events and experiences are the root element of reality. We are free to choose our path. And there is a lure toward being our best selves.

And for most people, the source of that lure is God. So how do you have Process Theology without God. Certainly, you can still have an honoring and recognition of events and experiences, of free will, even of the centrality of change in life. But how do you not include God?

I can imagine three ways to do it. I can imagine three different ways to hold a Process Theology perspective without a god element. Without there being a divine ‘will’ serving as the lure toward the good.

First, we can keep a purely atheistic and naturalistic perspective. This keeps every explanation about life solidly in the realm of science. We have found that Biology, Psychology and Sociology can provide a lot of insight into what we call “good.”

Most people want to be good people. That’s just how we, as social creatures, are. There are other forces in us that are destructive or divisive. We can see that and we can understand the value of goodness without it being entangled with some concept of God. For some people that’s enough.

Next, we can take a sematic pass on the question. We won’t use the word “god” but might refer to something like Life with a capital “L,” or the Holy with a capital “H.” This is a substitution that puts some distance from the word “god” because whatever it is we mean; it is not what most people think of when we use the word “god,” with a personality and maybe a thunder bolt. Certainly not.

And this is not merely pretending we’re not talking about God, either. This about trying to avoid the assumptions too often tangled up with the language. It is an attempt to include certain characteristics and not others in this conversation about the holy. And for some people that’s enough.

And then there is a third option. We can just talk about a mystery, an unknown. It is to acknowledge that what we know now does not yet satisfy us, but doesn’t mean we need to jump to using the word God to cover whatever we don’t understand.

There seems to be a lure. In my experience I am drawn to behave with compassion and I want to be just and good and kind – even when I am not good at it, I want to be. Why? Not sure. And for some people that’s enough.

Now, I say all that as someone who does believe in God. I am not trying to suggest you should or should not believe in any of this. I am instead suggesting you work out your own understanding as best you can in keeping with your experiences and your faith.

We are interconnected and dynamic and always expanding. We grow and learn by asking more questions and testing what we think we know. So, explore. Consider how you are drawn to behave, how you might feel a tug to be in the world in a certain way. Consider the lure to being good.

Process Theology asks us to keep seeking, to let science define the natural world while we stay true to that knowledge. And it asks us to allow the love that is God to lure us into a better way of being in the world.

And some people, it is enough to simply follow the lure; to live justly, to offer compassionate mercy, and to follow your path with humility in the face of all that is holy.

In a world without end,

May it be so

Punishing the Poor

File:We Want Justice We Want Change (49970698301).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Punishing the Poor

Rev. Douglas Taylor

10-10-21

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/OiJnp10sb0o

I remember a Junior High school curriculum our congregation used a decade or two back as part of our Religious Education program. It is called “Living in UUville” written by Rev. Jeff Liebmann. In this curriculum, students work together to build a town based on our Unitarian Universalist principles. It involved a little roleplaying which was an extra bit of fun. The students actually create a school first, a town in later sessions, and work up to creating a country and ultimately a global community – all based on our UU principles and values.

Each class had to figure out different things together. What laws would we put in place? How would we structure your school system? What would our tax policy look like? How would our values of interdependence and compassion play out in creating UUville? It is interesting to think about.

Would we have a police department in UUville? What would we do with lawbreakers, with liars or murderers? What training would our UU principles and values require of people becoming police officers? What obligations would law enforcement have in UUville? How would we deal with fear-mongering or disinformation campaigns? What would it be like to be poor in UUville? It is interesting to think about.

In our reading this morning, Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, a lay-leader in Unitarian Universalism and scholar of dance in her work-life, reminded us that:

“In every moment, life is giving us an invitation. I really believe that; I really believe that in every moment, life is giving us an invitation to do the things that are the most loving and life-affirming.”

She says we have this invitation from life and that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to respond to this invitation in a particular way. She writes:

“That is a part of the call: the mandate of what it is to be Unitarian Universalist: to figure out how we live together in loving, equitable, just relationship with each other.”

As we ponder what laws we might create and what a police force may look like in UUville, we will do so with a goal of “liv[ing] together in loving, equitable, just relationship.”

We are not the only ones looking at our police departments and wondering if there might be another way to do that work. Since the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last spring, there has been a call to defund the police. Defunding the Police is a slogan and it means slightly different things depending on who is saying it. In some versions Defunding the Police is just an effort to halt the acquisition of military grade equipment. In other versions, it is a step toward abolishing the police altogether. Most people are aiming for something in between. More than a solution for a single problem and less than burning the whole thing to the ground.

Ultimately, however, all versions of this rally cry are rooted in a recognition that something is off, something is broken in our police departments, something needs to be done to realign our police with our better values as a nation.

In his influential book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this about the police:

“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will.”

In short – the situation we are in is not an aberration.  Our situation is the product of the principles and values that were in place as we created the modern policing system. What we need is a systemic transformation, to reset the way we do things. And, that is a lot to expect. It is almost impossible to make that level of change. Yet that is what we really need.

So, when I find myself in the middle ground on this conversation, I am still aiming for systemic transformation. I am not ready to throw in with the call for full abolition of the police departments. And I don’t want to stop at just halting the radical militarization of our police. That militarization in both attitude and in equipment concerns me. But that’s not all I think we need to deal with just that is not enough. So, I am in that middle camp calling for defunding.

There was a scene in one of the recent Batman movies, I don’t recall exactly which one, but the bad guys are making a move on Gotham City and they come in with a tank and the police are like “Oh, no! They have a tank!” And that’s why they needed Batman to come in and help them. But it’s ironic because so many city police departments have their own tanks now. It is as if the police departments are trying to equip themselves better than Batman.

It is interesting to notice, the original TV Batman in the late 60’s featured a superhero who was super not because he could fly or had a ‘magic lasso of truth’ or could turn into a big green monster. He was super because he had amazing gadgets. So, what do we do fifty years later when the average city cop has access to the same level of equipment?

The Binghamton Police have a tank. How much longer before they have armed drones? Ponder that for a minute.

Armed military drones have had a dramatic impact on how our modern military operates, as well as on the devastating levels of civilian casualties. It was reprehensible during the Obama administration to witness the normalization of drone warfare. And predictably, during the administration after that, the use of armed military drones escalated dramatically. And now, with Biden, already the casualties from drone attacks are in the news. But for today, my concern is less about which political party is worse on this count. I have an opinion about that, but that’s not my point. My concern is more about how long before our police departments are using armed drones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against drones per se. We could use drones and traffic cameras to eliminate the need for police to physically issue traffic tickets. Imagine how many black and brown people would be saved if we didn’t need human beings pulling people over. We could just send a ticket in the mail the way they do on interstate 90 if you don’t have an EZPass. I’m not against better technology. I just don’t want our police officers to be decked out with tanks and armed drones. Dictators use their military against their own people. When we arm our police in the manner of a military, we are courting dictatorship.

But that’s just the starting point. Defunding the police, in my mind, is not just a call to halt spending on certain equipment, it is also about what we do want to spend the money on instead – better training, more unarmed responders for non-violent situations, more community-building and trust-building efforts. It is about a cultural change in the attitude of officers and the public in general.

There is a split along racial lines about how the police are generally viewed. It is like there are two different experiences of the cops – white people like me tend to view the police as a source of protection. People of color tend to view them as a source of danger and oppression. It is as if the police have two different ways to dealing with the public.

I heard one analysis suggesting the Police are behaving more like warriors and less like protectors. A protector would seek to keep all the people safe – at least that’s the way I hear the distinction in this analysis. Our UU values call for protectors. Warriors, on the other hand, are out to get the bad guys – the goal for them is to catch someone and punish them for wrong-doing. That is not in keeping with our UU values. In UUville, we would train our police to be protectors, not warriors.

Listen to this way to draw that same distinction but with different words. Aberjhani, an American historian and poet, has said:

“On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.” (Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays)

Some of the most exciting possibilities in this conversation about Defunding the Police is the talk of funding social workers to respond to non-violent calls. Even the violent calls, as Aberjhani suggests, could benefit from a mindset of compassion and recognition of each other’s humanity, But how much more so for the situations that are not a threat to begin with, but when an armed cop shows up, things easily escalate.

Across our nation over the past year, partly in response to the pressure from activists and protestors, and partly as part of decades long work to change the systems, several cities did cut or reallocate funding from police departments. Austin, Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore, along with dozens of others.

The exciting shift is to see the impact when the work is shifted away from armed police officers over to other agencies that deploy social workers to respond to situations involving homelessness, mental health crises, and drug addiction related issues.

I certainly understand the critique that taking money away from the police departments will not magically create better police officers. But that critique is based in fear and a seemingly intentional misunderstanding of the goal. The point is not to make the police continue to do everything with less money – it’s not like we are saying we will treat them like public school teachers. No. The message is that we want to move the funding to better align with our values.

So let’s talk about getting rid of Qualified Immunity and watch what happens in Colorado as they work through that reality. Let’s look at the budget of our city and our county and talk about reallocating funds. Let’s debate some of the pros and cons – but let us always keep in mind the values we are using to create this society together. Let us acknowledge that the problematic and harmful conditions in place when we began this country and later when we established what we know as police departments today.

Our Unitarian Universalist values and principles compel us to not just hunker down and hide in the privileges we currently have. Our values and principles compel us to not simply go along with whatever is happening in society around us. But let us not be tricked into thinking our whole faith is merely an argument against the establishment. We are called not be of or against the world around us. Instead, we are called to be transformative. We are called to participate in and advocate for the better values among us to foster transformation around us.

Step into the conversation. Ask more questions. Drill down to our values of compassion, justice, peace, and love. Let those values focus your thinking and your actions. We are called to be transformative. We are called to participate in and advocate for the better values among us to foster transformation around us.

In a world without end

May it be so

Spiritually Promiscuous

Spiritually Promiscuous

Rev. Douglas Taylor

10-3-21

Video: https://youtu.be/T26rrK6XRIg

Annie Dillard has a way of writing provocatively. She often tackles themes of God and the natural world, spirituality and suffer, in her works. We Unitarian Universalists have something from her in our current hymnal (SLT #420); something that can be used as opening words. It is from one of her early works:

We are here to abet creation and witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.

The word ‘abet’ is interesting. It is usually a term with a criminal implication – to aid and abet a crime. It means you didn’t actually do the crime but you were a willing participant in the crime happening, that you assisted.

Dillard says we are here to abet creation. You did not do creation yourself, but you helped, you were a willing participant. Dillard is very good at creating a provocative image with her choice of words.

Annie Dillard is also the inspiration for my title today. She used the phrase “spiritually promiscuous” to describe herself when she was in her 30’s. At first blush, this feels like a good descriptor for many Unitarian Universalists including myself. I partake in multiple spiritual sources as part of my search of the intimate and ultimate values in life. I’ve long identified with Dillard’s work, and not just because we share a birthday.

I must admit, however, the word ‘promiscuous’ may be off-putting. It is Dillard, again, being provocative. The word promiscuous suggests a lack of commitment, a frivolous rather than serious exploration of the matter. We Unitarian Universalists have been accused before of being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep;’ meaning we will take in a lot of diverse sources of spiritualty but not go deep with any of them. The critique is that we UUs are dabblers and tourists in other people’s deep faith traditions. I confess, there is a cautionary note worth hearing in this assessment. It is not an unfounded critique.

I would argue, however, Annie Dillard’s exploration of spiritualty has never been shallow or lacking in commitment. I would further argue that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning must likewise have depth and consequences, and my own experience has been so. We ought not be dabblers in the intimate and ultimate matters of life.

All the same, I will continue along my original line of thinking which this provocative phrase “Spiritually Promiscuous” has sent me along. The spiritual heritage of world’s faith traditions has nourished me well over the years. As it has many of us, I am sure. As Unitarian Universalists, we lean into a multiplicity of ways to be spiritual, and find teachings and lessons along the way as we work to become better people, truer to the promptings of the Spirit, more awake and aware.

This past week my neighbor complimented me on the article we had in the local newspaper about our renovations and the way our congregation navigated the pandemic. He said he had spent some time on our website and my own site where I post my sermons. He said he liked the way I described myself on my website as a Buddho-Humanist, Christo-Pagan with occasional bouts of mysticism. It caught his attention and made him think.

His compliment got me thinking, too. Annie Dillard is not the only one out there trying to be provocative. But what if I am serious? What if that clever line about being a ‘Buddho-Humanist, Christo-Pagan with occasional bouts of mysticism’ is not just a way for me to say ‘I can’t decide so I’ll take all the flavors.’ What if I mean it? Allow me to unpack my spiritual promiscuity this morning.

While it is not always my own personal starting point, let me begin with the pagan side of my spirit. In a meditation about calling the Four Corners, my colleague, Julia Hamilton writes this:

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…

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.

I need to be out in nature to stay grounded and balanced in my life. I often experience inspiration and reflection when I take myself out into nature, when I associate with the elements of the natural world. Being in nature helps me become a better person, and hopefully a better minister. It helps me be at peace and happy.

And when I say that, when I talk about being at peace, my mind is drawn toward another tradition and a different practice. Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote quite a bit about having peace and being at peace. He did not find peace being out in nature, he found it through meditation. I find his writing illuminating. Here is a small meditation he wrote entitled “Being Peace.”

Being Peace

If we are peaceful,
If we are happy,
We can smile and blossom like a flower.
And everyone in our family,
Our entire society,
Will benefit
From our peace.

We can be at peace and we can be happy; and our peace and happiness can have an impact on those around us. I often try to pair this idea with something I hear a lot from a non-theist or Secular Humanist perspective which says when we are grateful, we become happy, not the other way around. Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude is what leads us to happiness.

And from there I swing into some the Christian and Jewish ethical traditions which say having peace and gratitude is borne out of being in a community of justice and prosperity. It is not something one can do alone; one becomes free only in community. Gratitude and happiness and peace are all relational experiences, communal practices.

And that thought circles me back Mahayana Buddhism, which talks about how full enlightenment is an unachievable goal until all sentient beings are ready and we can all transcend together. It is a communal practice. Meaning no one person is ever fully enlightened, but one person can become more enlightened. As philosopher Ken Wilbur once wrote, “You are never ‘fully’ enlightened, any more than you could say that you are ‘fully educated.’  It has no meaning.”  (Wilbur, Ken, A Brief History of Everything p216) 

I find my spirituality is a blend, a weaving of various traditions and multiple voices. I value the lessons I find in Secular Humanism as much as those I find in Paganism, and they are intwined for me. In many ways it is because I am striving to be more educated, more peaceful, more just and kind. I will not limit where I seek for wisdom because I always have more to discover.

This perspective of being a seeker is very helpful to me, in part because humility built in to it. Many people get caught up in exclusionary spiritual ideas about being special and chosen and better than others. A healthy spirituality ought to keep me humble. A healthy spirituality ought to keep me striving to be better.

If you have found that following one particular path is what serves for you, then I commend you. I am not suggesting your fidelity is in any way a bad idea. My practice of wandering along many paths is not meant to suggest it is a bad idea to stick to one path. Instead I am suggesting the important part is how you move along your path. Follow one path or many, it is about how you follow.

In Paul’s letter to the congregation in Phillipi, one of the epistles in Christian scripture, we can read advice which outlines what I’m talking about.

Philippians 2:3–4

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

I like the way the second sentence is structured there. It is similar to the phrasing Jesus used when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself;” implying we do need to love ourselves, and in that same way love our neighbors. Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others, Paul wrote.

Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead, we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. All the religions lift up the various key threads of value found in the human experience: justice and compassion, suffering, hope and renewal. Each share, with their own distinct patterns, practices and beliefs that can make us whole.

Some of the wisdom leads me to prayer, some leads me to working for justice, and some leads me to regain my balance, and some helps me to learn to let go.

In the fifth chapter of the Tao Te Ching, we read:

Countless words count less than the silent balance between yin and yang. The space between yin and yang is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.

What I need in my spiritual life is both the yin and the yang, both the emptying and the filling, the words and the silence. Different practices from varied traditions serve to help me find that dynamic balance.

As Unitarian Universalism, we honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth. Every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Expanding that basic premise, we say that every religious path, when it is travelled with good intention and integrity, can lead you where you need to go.

I’ll close with a final piece from Annie Dillard again. From her book Teaching a Stone to Talk in which she is grappling with prayer and nature and silence.

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters, it is the blended note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

May you find, in your searching for meaning and truth, resources from all the world’s scriptures and humanity’s storehouse of spiritual poetry. May you be fed and challenged. And may each day of your searching bring you to a deeper understanding of yourself, of our world, and the grand mystery woven through it all.

In a world without end

May it be so