Loving People Anyway

loving people anyway meme (2)Reading: Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye 

Sermon: Loving People Anyway 

Sermon Audio Available Here

Almost exactly one year ago, 17-year-old Zachary Cruz was having a regular afternoon at the skate park when his mom’s friend showed up running towards him, in a clear panic….“Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened?”

It was in that moment that 17 year old Zach learned his older brother Nik had just opened fire on Parkland High School.

In that moment, he learned that his brother had killed fourteen students and three staff members.  

And it was in that moment that he learned that his brother had survived, and was in police custody.

Zach and Nik’s life had not been easy or simple up until that point. Even beyond their father’s death when they were little, or their mother’s death in 2017, Nik struggled – with anger and violence, bullying, isolation and loneliness.  

But still, he was Zach’s brother – and after their parents died – he was all Zach had. 

“I’m stuck between loving him and hating him,” he told the Washington Post.

After he had a chance to meet with the detective charged with making sense of the senseless, Zach asked if he could see his brother.  The video of their meeting is – gut-wrenching.

“You probably felt like you had nobody,” Zach tells his brother. “But, I care about you.  I know I made it seem like I hated you, but…I love you with all my heart.  I know what you did today – other people [will] look at me like I’m crazy even – and I don’t care what people think.  You’re my brother. I love you.”

After hearing all this, Nik starts shaking and crying, and Zach wraps his arms around him. “…stuck between loving, and hating him.”   

I know, most of us will not have to figure out how or if to keep loving someone who has committed such a horrendous act.  

But still, we all know a version of what Zach is wrestling with in that room.  If we have loved anyone at all, we know what it means to have to come to terms with their accidental or on-purpose failing.

To face their betrayal, negligence, cowardice, or lies. To try to understand why they did what they did, what part we might’ve played in it all.  (In the interview with the detective, Zach wondered if he could’ve been a better brother, if it might’ve made a difference….) We all know what it means to have to decide whether or not this thing they have done makes them once and for all un-lovable, or if there is a path to healing or restoration, to loving them anyway – and if so, what this would look like.

It is a complicated question, especially for those of us who claim a Universalist faith. After all, one of our core historical commitments says there’s nothing that you can do that would ever place you outside the reach of healing or redemption.

It’s the reason for our first principle – our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s the principle that most people remember – not just because it’s the first – but also because it is often the reason that people come to our congregations, and why people decide to call themselves Unitarian Universalists. 

Especially when held in contrast to religious traditions that start with an affirmation of human sinfulness and failure, or communities that make someone’s worth conditional – on right behavior, or right belief.  And even more when offered as an antidote to much of the world’s tendency to link someone’s ultimate worth to their financial worth, or their race, their gender, their looks, or physical abilities. 

The first principle denies all of this, and for this reason, it feels so good. 

But also, for these same reasons, the first principle can also feel so wrong. 

While we are drawn to this radically equalizing notion of humanity – eventually we do all find ourselves in that room figuratively or literally with someone we love who has broken our hearts.  And in that moment, the first principle feels not just wrong, but also ridiculous, maybe even stupid.  We think about moments like the one Naomi Shihab Nye describes at the airport – and we decide, these are just fantasies – exceptions, not the rule of human nature.

The real world requires not an affirmation of everyone’s worth and dignity, but a deep skepticism, distance, judgment, and thick skin.

If you trace the course of your life, you can probably still remember the first time you felt this pull – between loving and hating someone.  The one that comes most clearly to mind for me is my 7th grade teacher. 

She was in so many ways, glorious. She treated my class like we were real people – like we were actors in our own lives –  that we were capable, and also deserving of making choices about the things that would impact us. At 12 and 13, it felt revolutionary.

But then one school day, instead of our glorious teacher greeting us as she always did, the principal was there.  He told us that our teacher was taking some time away, at least 8 weeks.  We’d have a substitute. That they weren’t sure if she’d be back, but they hoped so.  

It was all really mysterious, and secretive, and especially painful because in that moment, my classmates and I didn’t feel like people anymore.  We felt like kids.

Later that night, while listening to my mom’s side of a phone conversation, I learned that my teacher had checked into a treatment center for addiction.

Which in retrospect was clearly not an act of betrayal – likely, she was trying to heal betrayal – but at the time, I still felt betrayed.

I felt like she’d been lying to us the whole time, that she’d set us up, that she’d abandoned us.  She did manage to come back to school before the year ended, but things were never the same.  I still loved her, but also now, in some ways, I hated her.

And putting these two feelings together felt impossible.  I couldn’t figure it out. So instead of either love, or hate, I chose distance, and denial.  And I think, she did too. 

These moments happen again and again across our whole lives.  Until at a certain point we realize, it’s not just one or two or three people – but people generally.  These individual moments scale out across whole systems, and societies, across time and culture. 

In the most general sense, we want to believe that people have what Unitarian William Ellery Channing called in his 1832 sermon, a “likeness to God.” That, if given the freedom, opportunity, and resources, people will choose compassion, fairness, and love.

These ideals are central to our country, and our liberal faith.  They are the values behind democracy, and the free society, and free religion.  That we might put our faith in humanity is also the fundamental assertion of Humanism, a central force in our faith today – the 1933 Humanist Manifesto affirmed a vision where people “voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.”

But then again, go to the Humanist website today to find that Manifesto. You’ll find also a caveat: This document is now considered historical record.  

It was superseded by an update first in 1973, and then another in 2003.  

Both updates still locate their faith in humanity – but they include a more notable ambivalence than was there in the first draft. 

Which makes sense.

Not too long after the boldly optimistic vision of 1933, came 1939, and the start of one of the most brutal periods in human history.  

As the preface to the 1973 edition says: “Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic.”

Which is a gigantic understatement, and also, it underscores that this whole emphasis on human goodness in our country, and in our faith tradition – had to come from the perspective and experiences of white upper or middle class men.  

I mean, for example, Native Americans would not have needed World War 2 to help them realize how capable humans are of brutality.

At the same time, as Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams acknowledged in 1941, while the dominant narrative of post-Enlightenment western thought has emphasized a positive view of humanity – it’s not actually a secret among actual people that we contain within us what Adams called both a “will to power,” and a “will to mutuality.” 

Or that this duality plays out across human history, as well as in every human heart. Including our own.

Despite this steady awareness, however, it is also true that we continually find ourselves surprised by, which is to say, totally unprepared for the moments when this reality presents itself. I mean: the way many of us reacted to the results of the 2016 national election and the related rise of white nationalism, for example.  With shock, and surprise, and overwhelm – as if such realities were unthinkable, or counter to the way humans have acted across history.  

Or: the shock we feel when someone we know, and trust, lies to us, acts inappropriately – seeking power instead of mutuality.  As if these instincts could not also exist within this “good person” that we know someone to be.   

In her new book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, Nancy McDonald Ladd points out that if you look at the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal – or attend one of our Sunday services, you’ll eventually notice that while we have moments for gratitude, songs of joy, and explicit mentions of sorrow and loss, we do not have regular moment where we acknowledge, let alone confess that we – as individual people, and that people generally – are not always good.  That we hurt each other, sometimes even on purpose.

Instead, she says we tend to perform our well-being for each other.  Which I believe is not just something particular to liberal religion, but actually endemic to our age. This time in history where on social media we reveal ourselves to each other – in ways that appear real – but are actually intensely curated and edited – we perform our well-being – the “story” we want to share, usually leaving out the moments we fail our friends, our family, or ourselves.

This perpetual performance means that over time, we’ve lost the language, skills, and resilience to deal with our pain, especially in any sort of communal, collective way.  Which doesn’t mean this pain goes away.

More like, it goes underground, becomes sub-conscious, as in – ensconced in shame.  And more likely than not, it ends up guiding our lives and our actions in ways that we don’t even realize.  Because you can’t heal the pain you aren’t willing to see.  And As Richard Rohr says, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”

Which I think explains a lot about our world today.  A lot of pain that has not been transformed – transmitted.

At least in terms of our faith tradition, however, this wasn’t always the case. 

If you go back to the 1937 edition of our hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, you’ll find there plenty of options for Unitarians to acknowledge human shortcomings, including our own version of confession. 

But by the 1964 edition – these were gone.

As McDonald Ladd says, “Between 1937 and 1964, Unitarians stopped confessing to anything. We just weren’t into that anymore.  It wasn’t our thing…We got so darn busy celebrating life every Sunday that we forgot how to authentically examine it….Existential reckoning….was…I suppose, too much of a bummer.”

While I don’t disagree about the “bummer” factor, I think the reason we’ve stopped explicitly engaging human failure in our communal life is actually more connected to that tension I described in our first principle – the ways it can feel so good, and then also, so wrong.

Because I’ve noticed in these tensions, that we tend talk about the first principles as if is about us.   About humans. About our dignity and worth as if connected to our actions, our words, our living – which means that it’s actually not unconditional – it’s dependent – as in, there is something that anyone (including us) might do that would make us outside the reach of love. 

Luckily, however, the first principle actually has basically nothing to do with us. Like I said, the first principle came out of our Universalist (rather than our Unitarian) tradition. Which means….well…to quote the 19th century minister Thomas Starr King’s description of our two traditions….

“Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humanity, while the Unitarians believe that humanity is too good to be damned.”

It’s an over-generalization really, and a semi-joke, but Starr-King’s focus is right.

While Channing and other Unitarians focused on human perfectibility, the Universalist claim was not about human nature.

It was about God.

So that when we speak about an affirmation of our inherent worth and dignity, it has nothing to do with our actions, but rather is an affirmation that regardless of our actions,  nothing could ever make us unworthy of love. Nothing.

As McDonald Ladd says – “God can work with whatever raw materials He was given to work with, even when those materials are imperfect, slightly dumpy, and occasionally weird – like us.” 

If you get tripped up by the theism here, you might try replacing God with different language – try Love. Infinite, ultimate, Courageous love.  Love can always manage to work with whatever raw materials it gets.  No matter what we do, Love will be there, meeting us not in our performed and curated stories, but in the fullness of our actual stories, in our will to mutuality, and in our will to power – no matter what, love is there, anyway.

Which means that when it comes to humanity, we can let in the whole of who we are – and trust, that regardless, love will meet us there.  We don’t have to provide it, or prove it.  It’s just there, always.  Which means we can prepare more honestly and non-anxiously for those moments when humanity will reveal itself once again to be brutal, and cruel – because it will.  So that when it does, we don’t get so stuck between love and hate that we find ourselves backing away in distance or denial, but rather we lean in with practices of accountability, reconciliation, redemption – and with truth-telling and the courage to turn towards rather than away from conflict.  

So that we can be a part of the change that Love keeps calling us towards, and makes possible. Anyway.  

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When We Go Together: On Fear and Courage at the Border

We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.
We will march for liberation
Because we know why we were made.*

As our group of interfaith leaders came nearer to the line of Border Patrol agents on Monday, all while singing these words over and over, I thought of the conversations I’ve had with many of you about the meaning of courage, and courageous love.

As in, how courage does not mean necessarily mean, we are not afraid.  Because, while there may have been people on the beach that afternoon who believed the words we were singing, I was not one of them.

We had spent over four hours in trainings the day before, preparing for the moment when we would near the border wall – and by the way, there is already a wall on our southern border.  I don’t know why more of the media does not speak about this when they report on the President’s call for a wall.  There is already a wall along the border. In some cases, two walls. But, of course, none of these walls (I guess we’ve decided to call them “fences”) are the height and grandiosity of the wall the President has in mind.  Which is a 30-foot concrete wall.  The height that studies show cause disorientation in anyone attempting to climb them.

Our training the day before had anticipated that we would move into the restricted area to get near the wall where migrants on the other side would be there to receive a blessing from those of us willing to risk arrest.  Arrestables, they called us. (Below, a photo of a bunch of arrestables, starting with the picture on the bus with Rev. Sara Lawall, minister of the UU Church in Boise, and then on the march to the border.  Apologies in advance to Sara – and to Rev. Megan Dowdell who I was also marching with – I told them after I took the picture that they were in the shot. They were both, by the way, not just arrestable, but were 2 of the 32 who were arrested.)




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We assumed that at some point it was likely that Border Patrol would tell us to stop, tell us that we would be arrested if we proceeded.  But we did think that most of the 100 or so of us “arrestables” would make it to the zone before that happened.

However, that was not the way it happened.  Instead, as we approached the concertina wires, we saw in front of us, a line of agents already lining up from the end of the wires to the lapping of the waves.  Border Patrol agents in full military gear, carrying large weapons, stone faced.


I was about 2 rows behind the rows you can see.  (American Friends Service Committee / Vanessa Ceceña)

As we got nearer, the group began to sing this song that we had sung earlier, over and over:

We are not afraid….for we know why we were made…

I’d been writing the script for Christmas Eve on the plane ride to San Diego, so I was also thinking about the many times in Christian scripture that people are reassured: be not afraid. Usually with a promise that God was present with them.  So with that, plus remembering our wrestling together over this idea of courage, I felt – not without fear, but also, connected to that sense of courageous love.

Singing with Rabbis and Priests, Imams and Catholic workers, UU ministers; veterans, activists, immigrants, citizens. Some of whom I count as friends and colleagues, some I know and admire from a distance, some were strangers that I had just come to understand as community and partners.  All of us held in courageous love – arms open, praying, singing, clear, steady.  Including me.

And then, just as quickly, all that fell away.  An agent got aggressive, or another friend was pulled across the line and arrested, or the agents yelled back up! while moving towards the rows of us singing and praying.  And I was afraid again, and unsure, disoriented, and disconnected.

Put this back-and-forth on repeat, and you’ll understand my experience for about 2 hours in prayer and in protest facing down a row of increasingly aggressive agents at the border.


Photo from CAIR Facebook page.  I was behind and to the left of this man, but I could see his face clearly, and it was filled with love and peace.  It gave me courage.  

My children, trying to make sense of what I had just done, asked me today if our event would make any difference.  If the migrants would be treated better.  If children would stop being separated from their families.  They meant, right away.  I said, probably not.  So, why did you go, they wondered?

My daughter – coincidentally – just finished a unit on non-violent resistance in her social studies class, but still, it’s not immediately easy for her, or my son, to understand.  We tell them all the time to follow the rules and to obey the law, how important it is to avoid the criminal justice system – and here their mom was willingly risking arrest – and not even managing to ensure that a single child was able to reunite with their parent, or that a family would find the freedom and security they came seeking.

I told them that sometimes, a law made by the government is not the same as a law that we know is right in our hearts.  I reminded them about slavery, and about how it was legal.  And that it took a lot of people, willing to risk their own safety and their own lives, a lot of years of protest and breaking the government law, in order to make sure that the laws of our hearts would not be broken any more.

I told them that as a minister, sometimes my presence and my voice matters a little extra, because it helps people remember those laws of our hearts.


The minister holding up the sign is the Rev. Laurel Liefert, who serves Foothills’ nearest UU congregation, Namaqua UU in Loveland, along with Laurel’s partner Francey, who has been a key leader in the work of ISAAC, our interfaith coalition for immigration justice. It was a blessing to travel together with them on this journey. 

And I told them that we were there to keep reminding people that what is happening at our border – it’s not right.  Even though it might take a long time for people to listen, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak up, or act, it just means that we have to be patient, and try to just keep doing our part.

My daughter – whose birth father was a Mexican immigrant – asked me then, if she went to the border, would people be confused, and think she was not a US citizen.  How would she be treated, she wondered?

I flashed on the Uber driver, a US citizen born and raised in San Diego with his 15 siblings, who told me last night that he carried his birth certificate with him wherever he went.  Because you just can’t trust anything these days, he said.

I don’t know, to be honest, I told my daughter.  It’s not fair, and it’s not right, because you are a US citizen, and really no one should have to wonder how they will be treated – regardless of where they were born – but that’s why we need to keep fighting for a different way.  And if we don’t get there, then your generation will have to keep trying. And then the next.

As Nelson Mandela has said, “It seems impossible until it’s done.”

And one day, it will be done.

And then, if like our world today, things that were once done become undone, then we march again.

This is what I didn’t even try to explain to my children.  That it was not always like this.  That 9/11, and the increased migration due to climate change and total governmental chaos in central America (often fueled by US policies and intervention), and the recent rise of right-wing fascism and racism across the globe has changed everything.

For example, Border Field State Park where we marched.  Right where we were kneeling in the sand, where I was both afraid and not afraid, where 32 people were arrested in their attempt to bless the people on the other side.  Before it was a “constitution free” restricted zone, it was a place where First Lady Pat Nixon dedicated Friendship Park.  At the time there was a small, three wire fence, which she pointed at and said she hoped would not be there long.

After the wall was completed in 2011, families still came to greet each other through the slats – they’d have picnics and birthday parties and reunions on either side.  But in recent years, even this has ended, with the concertina wire and the Border Patrol agents ensuring that no one can get anyone near the wall without risking arrest.

Another example, another story from an Uber driver, this one on the way to the airport this morning.  He told me that for a long time he and his family thought of themselves as residents of Tijuana and San Diego – they lived in Tijuana, went to school in San Diego – and vice versa – for the whole of his growing up.  He was probably about my age.  But in the past few years, he had to choose.  He lives in San Diego. But because he feels his home is both of these places, and in the border itself, he actually feel like he has no home. No country.

It is amazing how quickly we can normalize what is actually abnormal.  Adapt to what is incredibly dehumanizing.  Those who profit in money and power from these policies count on it.  And they count on the power of fear to ensure we won’t wake up to other possibilities. It’s another reason for the 30-foot wall. It is a monument to fear.  Just ask Gaza.

By our faith, however, we know that none of this is inevitable.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith reminds us that we have a choice about how we will respond to those seeking refuge, how we will treat these thousands of vulnerable people – who will not stop coming just because we put up a bigger wall.  Climate change and the ever-increasing presence of extreme poverty and violence across the globe will ensure that migration is a constant.

And it’s a constant that doesn’t need to be a problem to be solved.  The people arriving at the borders are people, after all.  People with gifts and skills and drive and imagination and heart.  People who can contribute towards solving our shared challenges in ways we have not yet even dreamed.

Besides, the cost of military deployment to the border ($200 million and counting), border patrol itself ($3.8 billion annually), or its sister agency Customs and Border Protection ($13.2 billion annually), or the cross-country efforts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement ($6.1 billion annually) – not to mention the continuous attempts at constructing an “even-better” wall (so far, about $6 billion appropriated).  Put all that together and you could provide temporary housing, social workers, therapists, and spiritual care for many, many, many people.

I know, these seem like wild ideas far out of touch with today’s political reality.  It’s a little like the third of our action’s demands: to end the practices of deportation and detention, to defund ICE and Customs and Border Patrol.  (The others were to respect the human right to migrate and seek asylum, and to end the militarization of border communities.)


Another photo from the CAIR Facebook page – we were about 50 feet in front of of these marchers, who were carrying the migrant birds as a way to mark the line of arrestables and non-arrestables.  

Yet, it is the work of the religious community to keep alive our moral imagination.  It is the work of our religious community to refuse to forget that the injustice we see today is not inevitable.  That it is human made, and so can be human unmade.  And to claim both our capacity and our responsibility to create a different future.

In the coming weeks and months ahead, I know that there will be ways that we can be a part of creating that different future. I’m already seeing sparks of some new possible responses both for individuals and for our community as a whole.

But for right now, I’m still thinking about that fear I felt, and then the courage.  (And repeat, and repeat…) Because I think our mission asks us to be connected to that tension, that space where we are pushed a little bit beyond our comfort zone, on behalf of a better world.  And I don’t just mean in a justice-making sense – sometimes that’s easier actually, than moving out of our comfort zones in our own lives.  To grow, and change, and heal, to admit mistakes, to give and also to receive help, to forgive – even ourselves.  So scary!

But if this is our work – within ourselves, among our community, out in the world – then it’s so important to lean into that sense of collective courage I felt with my knees on the sand and my arms open to the universe – even with the helicopters circling and the men screaming – singing we are not afraid.  It’s the same sort of courage the organizers told us the migrants reported tapping into to fuel their journey: we know we can make the journey when we go together.

This is the holy at the heart of our mission.  And together we have everything we need to keep moving forward – to march, and sing, and live for liberation.  And repeat, and repeat, and….


Prayer circle after we moved away from the action.  From the AFSC San Diego Facebook page. 


A few of the news articles reporting on the protest….

Why Were These Interfaith Leaders Arrested at the US-Mexico Border – The Nation

32 Arrested at a Demonstration Near the Mexico Border in Support of Migrant Caravan – Time

Dozens Arrested at US-Mexico Border – New York Daily News

Faith Leaders to US Authorities: Migrants have international rights to US Asylum – NBC News

*It looks like this song is an adaptation of a protest song written by the Peace Poets, an amazing group of hip hop artists grounded in the work of healing justice.

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Factions We Love

Factions We Love Worship 11.4.18Reading: from Resistance by Barry Lopez

[Sometimes I dimly recall the days] when I felt, like many others, that my life served no purpose. Do you remember any such days?

It was as though we all lived in tunnels then, crowded in with some stranger’s furniture, with more furniture arriving all the time.

For me, the terrifying part was the ease with which you could lose your imagination – just abandon it, like a gadget.

Everything was supplied, even if you had to pay for it all…

In every quarter of life it seemed, we were retreating into fundamentalism. The yes/no of belief, the in/out of fashion,…the hot/cold of commitment,… the forward/backward of machinery, the give/take of a deal.

Anyone not polarized became an inconvenience…People endorsed the identification of enemies and their eradication, just to be rid of some of the inevitable blurring.

We didn’t hear enough then about making the enemy irrelevant. No one said, loud enough to be heard over the din…, “Let’s make something beautiful, so the enemy will have one less place to stand.”

Sermon: Factions We Love

Last December, we held a holiday party for our then-Sanctuary guest, Ingrid.

It turned out, it was also a going-away-party, since the next morning she left to take sanctuary at the UU church in Boulder, where she is still.

But we’d learn that later.  That night, most of us only knew it as an evening for organizing, and courage-boosting, and community-building.  And celebrating the holidays, together.

Ingrid had cooked posole all day and the social hall smelled so good.  The room was filled not just with church members but with members of the wider community.

It was the perfect example of the tangled blessing.  

Because actually we were together to resist this great injustice embodied in this fierce and now-famous woman who had run out of options for legal residency in this country where she’s spent over half her life, and where her two children were born and raised. She’d decided that the best alternative to complying with a deportation order to return to a country where she faced danger and knew mostly no one was what I’ve come to think of as “church jail.”   

Having Ingrid here those few months was a daily reminder of this humanitarian crisis we’ve created in this country – a crisis that’s been made worse in recent months through the implementation of so-called Zero Tolerance aka family separation aka generational trauma.

Except that on that night it was not traumatic, it was joyous, and invigorating, and regular…beautiful.

It was a room of all ages and different cultures, beliefs and citizenship statuses, professions and languages.  

It was courageous love in practice, and the best of who we are.  

About mid-way through the night, I heard some talk about the night ending with a piñata.  

Although I had some anxiety about the dark and the bat and the small children running around, it was una fiesta, so, que bueno!  

That is, until someone told me that one of the piñatas was a giant Trump head.   

Either Eleanor or Sean or maybe both asked me, when they heard, they came to me and asked with a certain urgency: are we really ok with that?

I confess, for a flash I thought: maybe?

And then I remembered myself. And us.

And I said no, of course not.  

We can’t be ending the night by violently attacking Trump’s head.  Even if it is just papier-mâché.

Even if it was filled with candy, as my 10-year-old told me angrily that night.

He was so mad at me for stopping it.

He still brings it up sometimes, whenever we talk about Trump, because it wasn’t just about the candy.  

How it wasn’t fair I wouldn’t let him smash the Trump head piñata.  

It would have been so fun, to hit it and watch it fly, while the other kids, and probably some grown ups, cheered around him.

I know, I say, but it’s not who we are.

Which, most of the time, I believe.

We are living in a time of profound political polarization, and division.  I’ve heard it said so often in recent years, it feels almost cliché.  

Polarization in the US is not entirely new, but there are some particular ways that it is playing out differently today.  Those who have studied it say it has its roots in Nixon’s impeachment, when the Republican party was in disarray.  Ideological purity and refusal to compromise became strategies, tactics for reclaiming power.  Successful ones, it turns out.  

Democrats were slow-ish to pick up on the new patterns, but with the Clinton impeachment of the 90s, and the Bush/Gore supreme court decision – they got up to speed, so that by the time Barack Obama was president, despite his sweeping rhetoric, and audacity of hope, habits were well-established, as the grooves of polarization were by then, well-worn.

Most everything calls it political polarization.  But it’s not really confined to the politics these days.  

As the organization “More in Common” describes it, “bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table.” And from personal experience I’d add, from school playgrounds and PTA meetings to the workplace and the hospital room.

It’s a phenomenon that US Scholar Steven Webster describes as “affective polarization.” Affective = the heart.  It’s basically the trend towards mutual dislike between Republicans and Democrats, starting with the politicians themselves, but then over time, translating into the electorate directly.

As a recent article by Stephen Marche put it, “Political adversaries regard each other as un-American; they regard the other’s media, whether Fox News or the New York Times, as poison or fake news.  A sizable chunk also don’t want their children to marry members of the opposing party….affective polarization is a crisis that transcends Trump. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, the underlying threat to American stability would be as real as it is today.  Each side – divided by negative advertising, social media, and a primary system that encourages enthusiasm over reason – pursues ideological purity at any cost because ideological purity is increasingly the route to power.”

Today marks the beginning of our new series Divided No More. It’s a series we planned a long time ago – probably the most obvious series to decide on for the whole year.  Because we anticipated the energy many would feel in this final push towards election day – energy, or anxiety, or exhaustion. Maybe all of these.

It’s not unusual for Unitarian Universalists to be dedicated, democratically speaking.

And of course you can take that to mean both the governmental system and the party called democrat, as progressive politics and progressive religion seem to have an even greater correspondence than I’ve seen before, which is saying something.

When I first came into Unitarian Universalism, I was really passionate about the need to distinguish between religious and political liberalism.  I had heard stories of UU communities in the 1980s being confused with gatherings for the democratic party, and I understood how critical it was to ask ourselves how we are living in to our moral, ethical, and theological calling – our faith.  Rather than accidentally parroting the framework and the strategies of the political left.  

I admit, however, this has become more confusing in the past few years, as this sorting has reached far beyond some quarantined space called “politics,” and instead has indicated a kind of cultural, tribal, and even – as Emma Green described in a recent Atlantic article – religious – ethos.

Modern politics, especially on the right, has often included a religious component – the so-called values voter, the moral majority, and the other false-equivalencies of religiosity and Christian fundamentalism have been the story of conservative politics for nearly my whole life.  

But in the past few years, another sort of religious alignment has grown, this time on the left, or rather an alignment with those who are explicitly non-religious.

Nearly 30 percent of democrats – and the most active and motivated among them – according to recent surveys – identify as unaffiliated religiously.

I wondered how in these surveys Unitarian Universalists were counted, though…?

Because often you get questions like: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or none of the above…” or maybe even “Atheist/agnostic.”  Which one would we pick?

Green reports that these same “non-religious” extremely enthusiastic folks are currently embracing their political identity and affiliation in ways similar to how they might otherwise embrace religious and cultural identity and practices.

As Green says: “This [progressive] political identity … is basically acting as a replacement for people who maybe a generation or two before would identify as Catholic or as Jewish…..the Democratic Party is going through a transformative moment of both sentiment and identity.  Progressive politics [offers] a form of meaning making, especially if [people] are disconnected from other forms of ethnic or religious identity….

So much of this is wrapped up in people’s ideas of who they are and where they belong.”

In today’s often-isolating world, the flip side of political polarization is the fact of these  factions that also feed us, factions that we love – and that love us, communities and affiliations that become in and of themselves, antidotes to loneliness, sanctuaries of mutual support, and safety, and again – belonging.  

I mean, it feels good to repost that highly partisan meme.  It feels good to get the likes.  And it is comforting to watch Rachael Maddow and Chris Matthews – like gathering around a cozy campfire with your people who speak your language.  

And, there’s nothing like a shared enemy to help a group bond, and strengthen that shared identity – deepen that sense of belonging.  

Which is why, instead of understanding this moment as affective polarization, we’d be better off thinking of it as affective identification.  Where we are feeding this shared longing for an ongoing sense of community and emotional support – a sense of belonging – from those who share our same orientation.

With all this said, we should be clear that the rising sense of polarization and division is an overwhelmingly white phenomenon.  

White people in the US are more divided and polarized than ever before.  

For most people of color, this sense of division, and danger from “the other,” – this is old news.  So that what feels like regression for some, might actually feel more like progress for others, where white folks – at least some – are actually, finally, waking up.

As Marche describes:  “During the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, there really wasn’t as much of a difference between the racial attitudes of white people in both parties.  That’s no longer true…According to [recent surveys], half of Republicans agree that increased racial diversity would bring a “mostly negative” impact to American society…The Republican Party has become the party of racial resentment.  If it seems easier for Americans to see the other side as distinct from themselves, that’s because it is.”

After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the public radio program Fresh Air replayed an interview from last April, where Terry Gross spoke with Derek Black – a former leader in white nationalism who has since had a change of heart and now works to fight it.  

In the wake of the worst anti-semitic act of violence on US soil, Fresh Air replayed the conversation, as many of us try to understand what has led to the increased power and legitimacy given to the forces of hatred, racism, and prejudice in this country – and, how to stop it. One of the things Black described was how white nationalists intentionally seized Obama’s presidency to speak into the unresolved and sometimes sub-conscious racial anxiety and racial resentment felt by many white Americans.  

As the interview describes: “Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. … [But] by feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of your country is being taken away, [that] things are changing…” self-identified white nationalists have been able to make real headway into local and even statewide elections.

This week as I was explaining to my kids, or really, failing to explain to my kids, the history of anti-semitism, I started to feel overwhelmed at what feels like an infinite well of unresolved trauma across human history, and the incomprehensible failure – across all the generations – to do the real work of reconciliation, reparation; the failure to tell the stories so much so that we now have such a terribly underdeveloped language to even speak about the violence we have done, and had done to us.

As my teacher Dr. Vincent Harding used to say, “when it comes to creating a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society,  America is still a developing nation.”

When we sit with our history, and really let it sink in.  The fact that we find ourselves in this moment seems not just understandable, but predictable.  There’s so much human work that was left undone, work that does not just go away with the passing of time.  Work of mending and tending, healing and transforming; holy work, spiritual work, religious work.  

Work that asks us to step back from political affiliation as a stand-in for religion, and instead ask what our actual religion offers us, and requires of us in these times, in this moment.

Because while the political framework might give us a sense of belonging – it is a limited sense, and one that contradicts the most central claim of our faith – this claim that we all belong to each other.  

All of us.  That we are all ultimately in this life together, interconnected, interdependent. And that salvation, liberation, healing, wholeness – these are for all of us, or none.

And here I want to underscore that central claim of our faith does not requires us to seek common ground –  but only a common humanity.  Sean’s going to speak more on this next week.

And it’s not even a claim that affirms an underlying same-ness.  

Rather, it’s a commitment that I sometimes think of as theological self-differentiation.

Where we stubbornly refuse to let the actions of another dictate the orientation of our own hearts.  Where we commit to seeing in the other – regardless of their actions, their words, their choices – a human. A human with a story.  A human with complex and contradictory and often irrational beliefs – like all humans.  A human who loves and longs for belonging, as all humans do.  

It is a faith commitment to the idea that there is a through-line across all of us – a connective force, that cannot be undone, a connective force of love.  And it is a commitment that no one, no matter what, is beyond the reach of Love, and Love’s transforming power. 

Most of all it is a commitment to live out of this commitment, everyday.  To put our energy into making something beautiful, so that the ugliness has one less place to stand.

Or rather, it’s a commitment to try.

Because some days it seems totally right and good that we should smash a Trump head piñata.  

So then on those days, the commitment is also to remember that the reach of love includes us, to receive that grace too.

Which can sometimes be the hardest thing.

And then the commitment is just to trust that there is always so much more at work than we can see, or know, or understand. And so we can only give thanks, that we can be a part of it all, and keep trying do our part, in love.

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Past as Prologue

There was a time in my ministry here where I felt like every meeting or gathering I was in, I found myself saying “well that’s a can of worms.”  It got so common that at a certain point I just started saying: “wow, there are so many cans, and so many worms.”

But lately I’ve realized, I’ve started to say something else: “how did we get here?”

The two are not disconnected.

My first few years at Foothills were like one big scratch and sniff sticker….like…what’s this one…?

Congregational life is often a lot like family life, people get so accustomed to holding the stories close, we stop seeing what’s right in front of us.  It’s mostly not intentional or conscious. It’s just – the water we swim in.

It’s not until someone new shows up and simply sees things, steps into a story already in progress, notices what has become invisible to everyone else.  It’s like suddenly everyone feels like they have new eyes.  They suddenly see stuff that was there all along but they had no idea.

For example, growing up, most nights we ate our family dinner at bar stools around our kitchen counter.  We did not have a large kitchen.  And there were five of us.  So it was pretty tight.  But I never really thought about it, or saw that it was an issue, until one of my friends came over and was like, why does your dad have to eat all smushed up against the wall? I’d never noticed!

That was my job those first couple years, to be that friend that came for dinner.  Just show up and see.  Sometimes name things out loud.  Often not.  Sometimes just my presence was enough.

I showed up in a lot of places, wherever I could get an invite, and sometimes I didn’t even wait for that, I just showed up.  You all were really gracious, thank you.  Which is why, at a certain point it really was: so many cans, so many worms.

Until that is, some time last year – this is my 7th year – our 7th year by the way – so in my sixth year of showing up – it became apparent – there was so much out on the table, everywhere.  We needed to find a way to make some sense of it all.  Understand the story we are all in, the story we’ve been writing even as we’ve been living it.  Put it all in order, try to get a sense of the cause, and effect.  How did we get here?

Any time any of us show up in a community, a family, a country – we always arrive in the middle of a story already in progress, a story that starts impacting us and that we start impacting right away – when we move to town, or walk through the doors, or when we are born, or adopted, or when we get married.  It’s what Rebecca Parker means when she talks about inheriting covenant before we create covenant.

Covenant is one of those church words that can be kind of inaccessible, I know, so let me break it down a little.  At its most basic level, covenant is a promise of enduring relationship between 2 or more people.  It’s a promise of loyalty, and love, and it requires an ongoing practice of trust, and accountability.  So what’s she’s saying is, before we even begin to choose what commitments we will make in our lives, we inherit this web of relationships, promises that have produced us, this moment, commitments that have created us, these lives here and now – commitments kept, and un-kept; the web that has held, and failed, broken, and pieced back together in triumph, and loss, and reconciliation, and redemption.

You’ve probably heard about these studies that have come out, about generational trauma, and historical trauma. They are pretty remarkable.

They show that even if we are multiple generations from the direct trauma experience, if somewhere in our family there was trauma, we carry these things in our DNA – as if we ourselves had been there,

and also, we are learning the ways that trauma accumulates across generations.

This has been especially apparent in Native American populations, Jewish holocaust survivors, Japanese Internment survivors, African Americans, and I’d have to imagine, is what is brewing in today’s immigrant community, especially those who have known family separation and zero tolerance.

This accumulation of grief, and pain, and unresolved grief.

Sometimes these studies have met with a lot of resistance.

Which makes sense.

Since ancient times, people have been uneasy with this idea of the “sins of the father” being passed down generation to generation.  It’s one of the points of tension throughout the Hebrew Bible – the Torah talks about God taking out vengeance for three or four generations past the original offense, but then in the prophets –

the text promises no such thing would ever happen.  That each person gets a fresh start.

But these studies remind us of something I think we know – even if we wish it weren’t true – we are all always stepping into a story that started long before we arrived, and this story has an impact on us, necessarily, inescapably.

People resist these studies because we don’t want to believe that we’re stuck in whatever story our parents, or grandparents lived in – that we are trapped in those same loops of pain, and struggle. Certainly, we do not want to believe that we are caught in a story where for nearly the first 150 years of this country, women did not have the right to vote – because we were not considered a full person, with full rights.  But here we are.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that this is the story we have inherited, and it does impact us.  And sometimes, in weeks like this, it feels exactly like we are caught in a loop.

But actually what the studies show, is that although we are inevitably impacted by this inheritance, we are not caught forever.  If we can learn this story we have stepped into, understand it, then we can still choose.

Or more accurately, if we can learn the stories.

Because – as Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk put it, to imagine the past as a single story – is dangerous.

It risks reducing human complexity to something singular, two dimensional – when really life is always so many things, so many contradictions and complexities.  To insist on a single story requires flattening human experience, and choosing one slice or one lens over another – inevitably erasing some people’s experience, or erasing parts of who we are and what we know and what we care about in order to produce that clean, linear narrative.

It’s why when we talk about each of us having a piece of the truth, we should be careful.  Because we don’t mean to imply that all these pieces fit together in a single, straightforward, linear narrative.  Human beings and time and life are in reality none of these things.

Which does not stop us from wishing they were.

We aren’t just predisposed to nostalgia, as in, a sentimental longing for the past.   I mean, we are – we all have a tendency to a romanticize some other time, and place.

But not only that.  We are also predisposed to imagining that the past we long for was a universal reality on a singular universal timeline.  That it was a reality we all loved, and then we lost.  Which means that if we could just figure out the one thing that changed that reality, and then eradicate it.  We’d all be back on track.

Which is basically the entire theory behind Make America Great Again.

And actually when I think about it from this perspective, I get it.

Because I think we all can relate with this longing.  Any of us who know loss, and grief, especially an accumulation of loss, and grief – across lifetimes, and families, and whole communities.

Any of us who long to belong where we are.

It’s why I was especially heartened when I read this account about Fort Collins recently – it’s from a historian, speaking about realities in our community.  Realities I’m guessing that many of us would recognize.

It reads:

“City planners [have been] hard pressed to keep up with the city’s growth, especially in the rapidly developing suburbs.  Fort Collins population [has] almost tripled over twenty years.

New industries [have been] relocating in the area, attracting more people.  Builders [have] tried to keep pace with the growth as all-time records [have been] set for private construction.

Rapidly increasing enrollment [has] also led to a building boom on the CSU campus.  Enrollment doubled in just six years, and then almost doubled again five years after that.  The University [has] dedicated a new and larger stadium.

The social consciousness of [our time has] found expression through a variety of organizations and activities [in our community]. [Our city and CSU have also faced issues] concerning discriminatory practices against blacks and Mexican-Americans, [although] CSU [has] avoided the violence experienced by other campuses across the country.”

Although somewhat dry, it all sounds relatively accurate, like one true version of the story of us.

Which is why I found it heartening, and even hopeful.

Because – let me read you the final lines.

It reads, “The turbulent 1960s ended with little resolved on the issues of discrimination, and war.  While the unrest would carry over into the 1970s, more peaceful years were ahead.”

Right, what I just read was not actually about Northern Colorado today.  It was a report about Northern Colorado from more than a half a century ago.

Which is why I found this somewhat dry report truly heartening, and even hopeful – because it was this plain-faced reminder of the ways we inherit covenant before we create covenant.

This little snippet from our town decades ago reminds us of the story we have stepped into.  It’s the cans, and the worms, and it’s how we got here. It tells us – like Jerry said about the upcoming building campaign: we can do this.  Even if we were not there personally – and I’m guessing most of us were not – we carry these lessons in our collective breath, in our buildings, in the streets and in our schools –

here is the story we have inherited, the promises that made our lives and this place possible – and within and between and among us all live the lessons and learning we need from 50 years ago, to now.  This time the Museum volunteers described as “some of Fort Collins most turbulent years.”

History is a gift, and challenge, and a warning.  So that, once everything is on the table, we can learn, and we can choose, and we can create.  We can choose what values we will carry forward to anchor our present, and chart our future. We can choose the promises our lives will make, the stories we are going to write, the people we will commit our lives to, the vision and values our lives will serve.  In our city, our church, our families, our country.

It’s why I haven’t completely toppled over this week, even as Brett Kavanugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.  Because we know this story, it is our story.

And also, we know the story isn’t over yet.  We’re still writing it. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” Maya Angelou writes.

“But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

There are still more stories that are a part of us that still need to come to the table, more we can learn, more truth and complexity to hold, more power and grief and grace to bring.

So we still have the chance, even today to learn, and to create, and to choose the promises that our lives will make, the inheritance we will offer for the generations yet to come.

Together we still have this chance to write the future, a future we will not cede to anything less than a vision of abundant life, for us all.


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The Lure of the Local

Part 1: Community in Place and the Longing for Home 

For a couple of years, in what now feels like another lifetime, I oversaw a new play development program with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.

New plays were a new idea – I mean, Shakespeare Festival.  But the thought was – they could use the company that they’d already hired to put on Othello or Hamlet to give emerging playwrights a chance to experience their work out loud, and on its feet.

In our early conversations we agreed that since there were a lot of resources for playwrights living on either coast, but hardly any focused on the middle-of-the-country, we’d focus on supporting playwrights living and working in Colorado, and in the states immediately around us.

So over my two seasons, I ended up working with playwrights from Arizona and Utah and most often, from Colorado – Boulder, and Denver, Summit County and Colorado Springs, and most memorably – Telluride.  Memorably because the name of his play was Telluride.  The Musical.

If you’ve been to Telluride you can probably already guess at the scenes and songs…in most cases they were expressing the regular tensions present a mountain town – just the extreme version that is Telluride.

First, the undeniable beauty of the place. Especially in Telluride where it’s not too easy to get to, it’s a connecting experience that in and of itself creates a sense of shared identity.

It’s often the reason that people come, and stay.

Which is what also has brought in developers.  That have built condos and shopping centers that block some of those amazing views, and have exponentially increased the cost of living.

And of course, this has also brought in all the Starbucks.  Eventually one for every corner. Supplanting each of the local coffee houses, one after another.

Surrounding all of this, a non-stop schedule of festivals, especially amazing in Telluride.  From Blue Grass to Extreme Sports.  And from Films to Fire, Comedy to Hot Air Balloons. They are year-round.

Which also means there is a non-stop flood of tourists year round.  There to experience the magic that is Telluride.  This many tourists though makes the town necessarily feel a little like Disneyland.  A pretend place filled with things to consume rather than a community where people actually live.

I don’t remember all the details of the play, but what I do remember is the underlying grief its author had for this place that he loved. A place that was still – beautiful, charming, filled with culture – still the same place in latitude, and longitude – but a place that had also somehow, somewhere along the way, stopped feeling like home.

It is a common longing in today’s high-paced multi-centered, globally-oriented world: to feel connected to the place where you are in a way that feels like home.  It’s a longing that artist and writer Lucy Lippard calls The Lure of the Local – which she describes as “the pull of place that operates on each of us…the geographical component of the psychological need to belong.”  I’d call it the need to belong where you are.  The longing for the place where you live to feel like it has an authentic claim on you, and your life, and you on it.

Belonging is a basic human need – right after the most basics of air, food, shelter, safety. To feel accepted, to be known, to feel connected and ease.  We cannot survive without it.  An article I read once described belonging as one of three reasons that someone comes, and keeps coming, to church.  The other two are significance and transcendence.

People come – see what you think – to feel like their life matters – significance; and we come to feel connected to something much greater – transcendence.  And then we come for that sense of belonging.

Best of all is when we can experience belonging in a way that connects to these other two – belonging in a shared since of making a difference, and in a way that feels connected to the great big everything.  I call this an experience of the holy.

It is a sense of belonging that is existential and transformative.

Belonging is a basic human need, but unlike food or shelter, getting to this experience – even it its most basic, let alone the existentially satisfying, transformational experience of belonging is not simple.  Because unlike the other human needs, belonging is a profoundly personal, individually-determined experience – where the story of your life comes into contact with the story of another, and of a whole community, a place, a country, a world.  It’s why Peter Block talks about belonging as alchemy – there is always some mystery and magic involved.

The practice of belonging today is often made possible through the miracle of technology – social media and video calls and texts – they can be literally lifesaving.  But still, there is the reality of our bodies.  And the longing our bodies have to be in proximity to other bodies.  IRL.  The feeling of a hand clasped.  The comfort of breathing the same air.  Staring out the same window. The connection made knowing we have these common daily experiences: schools, parks, restaurants, hiking trails, traffic, community ordinances, protests and prayer vigils, construction, weather.

We have a longing to belong where we are.  To know that nearby are those eyes that will light up when we enter, voices that will celebrate with us when we come into our own power, and those who will join their strength with our own to do the work that needs to be done.  And most of all, those who will meet us for dinner after a terrible day, whether by way of our toddler, our teenager, or our ten hours of listening to the coverage of terrible and traumatic supreme court hearings.

I know, there have been other terrible, traumatizing news weeks over the last two years. Shocking events with significant impact on the most vulnerable in our country.  And still this relentless reality need not reduce what happened in Thursday’s Senate Hearing to something routine. I didn’t get to listen to the whole thing, and still from what I did hear, by 4, I was ready to go home.  Order in Chinese, and tell my kids to pull out the TV trays.

Instead I had been invited/required by my friend who serves on its Board to attend a thank you dinner for La Familia / The Family Center for its major donors and community partners. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d promised her I’d be there, I totally would’ve sent an email saying I was calling in “over it.” With apologies.

But instead, I went.  And there I was greeted, not just by my friend, but also another friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We immediately hugged – all three of us with simply the words: This day.  And then, on top of that, there was a whole crew of Foothills folks I didn’t know would be there, a few of whom I hadn’t had a chance to catch up with for a while.  Over dinner we shared stories of rage and heartache, tales of grandchildren and travel adventures, news about local non-profits, questions about the church.  And along the way, we heard about the work of this organization – La Familia – that is right now doing the everyday work of building up the same communities most impacted by these news stories –  children, families, seniors – our neighbors, friends, family.

It didn’t make the grief go away, the rage, the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about the fact that it will take my lifetime, and a good part of my children’s lifetimes before we will have a supreme court that does not include a man who is the amalgamation of every arrogant privileged jerk I knew (and avoided) in college.  But it did give me a sense that I was not alone, that life continues.  In beauty, and joy, and salsa music.  And it reminded me in real time – that although we cannot save everything, fix everything, at a certain scale, that is in the smaller scale, the relational – the local, the personal, there can be goodness, and healing, and change for the better.

“The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time,” Peter Block writes. And everything comes down to two questions: How we will be when we gather together? And what we will we create together?

Part 2: Being the Church for Northern Colorado

When Kisa Gotami lost her only son, the Buddhist story goes, she was understandably, wrecked.

She could not accept that he had died so suddenly, so young.  She went to one of her neighbors, begging him to help her find a cure that would bring him back to life. The neighbor told her he couldn’t help, but maybe the Buddha could – he was nearby.

Kisa went running to him, right away, carrying the body of her young son.  Please, bring him back.

To her relief and elation, he said he could.  Go back into the village, he said, and gather mustard seeds from every household where they have never been touched by death.  Bring those mustard seeds back to me, and I will create the medicine that will bring your son back to life.

Eagerly, she went, house to house.  Knocking, and asking, and listening each time to the story of the way that each and every one knew loss, and grief, and suffering.  She did not manage to gather a single mustard seed.  But instead she came to know that she was not alone in her pain.  She understood that everyone knew loss, and grief, and struggle.  Instead of isolating, the loss became connective.  Her son was not brought back to life, but she realized that even in the midst of this devastating reality, she could go on living.

This is how healing happens, how change happens.  In small, human, undefended conversations. Neighbor to neighbor, story meeting story.  Beyond talking points and headlines, into the context of real relationships of trust, care, and compassion bound up by a shared investment in the village that is the shared community, this place where we live, this place where we are all longing to belong.

As Peter Block says, “We change the world one room at a time. This room, today, becomes an example of the future we want to create.  There is no need to wait for the future.  We can create the experience of belonging in the room we are in [right now].”

This is basically sums up why I decided in 2008 to dedicate my life to the local church. Specifically to the local Unitarian Universalist church.

That year, I had the chance to explore a bunch of different churches, all across the country. Churches that were thinking differently about church.  I interviewed their ministers, talked to their founders.  In some cases, I went and visited. These were mostly not UU churches.  They were Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists.  One was a hybrid UCC-Buddhist.   It was all pretty mind-boggling because they were all so unstuck, so free.  So seemingly unbound by tradition or any other old ideas of what “church” is supposed to look like.

For example there was this Presbyterian Church in Louisville that was actually a network of 8 small gatherings that met in houses every Sunday. About 15 in each house. All ages. They’d take turns making dinner and leading each other in spiritual practices and then read the bible and other texts together – their promise was only that they would share in a time that connected them to the holy.  And then each house gathering group decided on one way they would serve as a group in the wider community during the week.  Once a month, all the gatherings came together for a large group worship.

I feel like that was the year I really started to understand congregational polity.  Which is funny because I learned it from the Presbyterians.  But what I realized was that even though technically our churches are totally free to take whatever form they might, we have historically mostly all operated in basically the same ways, with the same basic patterns, regardless of where we are, regardless of our context, the particular patterns of our people in their lives, their particular heartaches, or the stories they might offer if we went knocking on doors and invited the telling.

But I realized, we didn’t need to.  We could instead build communities that are organic, responsive, and deeply embedded in the places where they are – as resources, and partners invested in the common good. by Communities that respond to the longing we all have for belonging – not just in a generic sense, but in a way that is connected to the place where we are.

Today is the first Sunday in our new series NoCo Life, and our goal for this whole series is to dig deep in these localized questions as they connect to our faith, and our church.  To lean into the story of this place – longitude, latitude –  that so many of us love – and to ask what it means to be a church community here, and now? And what are the questions that this place – our home ask of us, and our faith? What are the claims that Northern Colorado place on us, how does it shape us and our lives – and how are we called to shape it?

Because it is a process of weaving our story with a larger story, belonging takes work.  Ongoing work.   Regardless of how long we may have technically lived in a place it is not automatic, or perpetual once you have it. I mean, some transplants will tell me – even though they loved this place since they first visited – it took them 2, 3 or 4 years to feel like it was their home.  Some still feel like visitors after decades.  And at the same time, I’ve talked to folks who’ve been here 50, 60, 70 years, and mostly what they feel today is displaced and disoriented.  So much has changed, and as Lippard says, “one can be homesick without moving away.”

To belong where you are requires a constant openness. A lifelong curiosity for a place and its people as it is now, and as it is always becoming.  To refuse the pull of a romantic nostalgia for a past that likely never was as good as you believe, and equally to avoid an overly-cynical focus on today’s deficiencies and problems, and to instead stay present to what is unfolding here and now.  Right here, right now.

To show up in the room with courage, and humility. Open to all we cannot control. Offering ourselves as we are.  Surrendering to the mystery.  Giving thanks.

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How It Might Have Gone (My Universalist Dream Ballet Version of the Brett Kavanaugh Senate Hearings)

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee

I was imagining all day yesterday how it might have gone.

I keep thinking of it like my Universalist-Dream-Ballet version of the horrifying/captivating Senate Hearings. That is, a version of events fueled by my most idealistic notions of redemption and reconciliation.  And, a version that would obviously include spectacle, ornate costumes and over-the-top musical flourishes, and/or non-linear plot devices – because it’s that disconnected from reality. 

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(Dream Ballet, i.e. something like this…)

Which did not stop me from thinking about it.  

Like most everyone I know, I listened to almost all of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony.  I listened reflexively, out of loyalty more than curiosity.  After all, I’ve been off-book on this script for most of my life.  All the words, and players, how it turns out.  I’ve had it all down at least as far back as that same life stage they were working so hard to recall today.

There are plenty of things I don’t rememember about being a teenager. (And, at least 90% of what I used to remember got swept away in the fog of early motherhood…) Still, there will always be those things I will never forget, even if I try…My first long, slow, increasingly desperate survey of the school cafeteria wondering who to sit with.  Staring down the swimming lane at state finals.  Beating all the boys at the math competition.  Getting the love note from the boy everyone said liked me.  Saying goodbye to my sisters and my parents once they dropped me and all my stuff at the dorms.  And a month or so later, that night in the frat house

The therapist who greeted me the day I realized the memory was not going away agreed with me, it wasn’t rape.  But it was questionable – in the consent arena.  Fuzzy lines made fuzzier by alcohol and the dark rooms of Greek row.  I was 17 when I went to college, still very much a teenager.  A couple years older than Dr. Blasey-Ford, the same age as Judge Kavanaugh. When he held her down, and covered her mouth, and she wondered if she would survive.

I don’t remember everything about it.  Definitely not enough to withstand Lindsey Graham and his temper tantrums.  But enough to know still his name.  His face. His smell.

In my Dream Ballet version of the Hearing, Brett Kavanaugh still doesn’t remember doing it, still isn’t sure.  It isn’t required for reconciliation to begin, I’ve realized.  Because I’ve seen it enough now, the power of denial.  The stories we tell about ourselves, stories that if you topple them, would mean toppling over entirely.  Facts are no match for these stories.   And at 53, he’s been telling himself these stories for decades.  “I went to an all-boys Catholic high school where I was focused on academics and athletics and going to church every Sunday and working on my service projects and friendships.”

These sorts of moments challenge Universalists (and others oriented towards a commitment to compassion and our common humanity).  Because we don’t believe in writing anyone off.  Because we often don’t have a fully formed theology of evil.  Because we do have an over-functioning theology of human goodness.  Not to mention a totally-unscientific faith in human reasoning.  Because we too confuse today’s US court system with anything resembling real reconciliation, or restoration.

A couple weeks ago I offered a service on the Jewish High Holy Days, focusing in on the time between Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – a time known as Teshuvah, or, the turning.  This intervening time represents the work required to get to atonement (at-one-ment), the work that is often left unsaid and untended to – in our courts, and in our lives.  The work that of real reconciliation.

It is a process that requires multiple steps, what I call the 5 R’s:

  1. Recognize yourself in ways you have not been willing to know yourself before.  Recognize the injury.  Study it.  Not from your own life perspective, but from within.  Recognize your role, without excuses or explanations.  Accept responsibility.
  2. Remorse comes naturally after a full recognition.  Remorse is more than regret. Remorse means we know ourselves as the one who has caused another pain.
  3. It’s this real remorse that inspires our Refusal to ever repeat the same mistake again.  Without this commitment, all the other steps are meaningless.
  4. It’s not always possible to Repair the damage that was done, but trying matters too.  Do whatever you can to put the pieces back together.  Repay the money.  Restore the reputation.
  5. And finally, it requires Revelation.  As in, your own out-loud utterance of every other R – outloud to the person you injured, outloud to the surrounding community.  Out loud to God, the universe.  Bring what has been previously hidden and secret into the open so that it can be accountable.

Despite what any of us might wish, time does not automatically do the work of the 5 Rs. Even the time that passes from age 17 to 53.  A law degree does not do it either.  Nor does a successful career as a judge, or a nice house with a beautiful family.  The work requires actual work.  Intention.  Starting with that first move towards recognition.

In my fantasy version of the Hearing, Brett Kavanaugh does not have to topple over.  (Even in a Dream Ballet, we can’t imagine that denial can be undone in one moment.) But even an opening towards the pain Dr. Blasey-Ford is expressing would be a start, a move towards connection, restoration.  Rather than amplifying his own sense of pain, and entitlement.  Channelling anger for what was being done to him.


Rolling Stone’s photo from the hearing. They captioned it “Angry Kavanaugh.”

A willingness to acknowledge: it is possible that he does not have all the information.  It is possible that his memory is imperfect.  (Dr. Blasey-Ford could teach him a little about the scientific reasons why memory can be deceptive and self-protective.)  Any move towards wholeness would have to begin here.  With an acknowledgment that there are always things out of our view, a humility, and a willingness to see anew.

Imagine how differently things might have gone – if he’d made even the slightest move towards this recognition.  In the courtroom, or even better – in the first hour he learned of her coming forward.  Or even more incredibly, in any of the days between that night at the party, and the day his name was put forward for a lifetime appointment to the highest court of in our (less so every day) justice system.

Imagine. Instead of trying to accept that we are appointing a self-righteous sexual predator to the Supreme Court, today we might even be giving thanks that we’d be appointing someone who knows what real justice looks like. This is the power of this path of real turning, real redemption and restoration.

I know.  It’s a wild fantasy.

But it’s a fantasy we need not abandon for all time.

When we are talking to our kids about the lessons of this Hearing.  About the lessons of the #MeToo movement.  About the sorts of humans that we can and must be for each other.  About consent.  And respect. And love.

We can and must also speak about failure, and regret, and repair.  Because we are not perfect creatures.  None of us.  And because science actually shows we are mostly profoundly irrational, illogical, inconsistent.  Because I want my kids to know not only that if they have something terrible happen to them, they can and should expect this degree of accountability, and repair – but that if they do something terrible, there is a path to repair. Because it remains true that no one is ever outside the possibility of redemption.  And because even when all seems lost, truth continues to be revealed. Even for Judge Kavanaugh.


the quintessential dream ballet: Oklahoma!

PS.  In case you’re wondering.  I believe her.  But as I said last March in my #MeToo sermon, I’m not sure that “believing” is really the issue.  I’m guessing Lindsey Graham mostly believes too, despite his wild dramatics.  I’m guessing the large majority of the Republican Senators believe her.  The issue isn’t belief.  It’s about whose life and whose suffering matters enough to respond.

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The Morning After


Reading: After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood by Sharon Olds 

Sermon – The Morning After – Gretchen

Last Sunday, I told you about the ledge at my friends’ lake cabin. How I was too afraid to ever follow them when they’d jump off into the water below. Well, I wasn’t always so cautious.  Actually, a lot of the time, just the opposite.  

For example. I was in about 5th grade at summer camp when I was a little late for the evening campfire circle (I’d been getting something from my cabin and missed the call to line up, but I didn’t want to miss all the fun singing that happened at the beginning.)

My cabin was at the top of a big hill. The campfire was at the very bottom.  There was a trail to get down.  It zigged and zagged to keep the incline a little more manageable, but also made it really long. Suddenly I remembered that some of the older kids often took a less-official trail that cut off the switch backs – instead of a mild incline, it was a steep one, but they all seemed to do fine with it – and they’d arrive in half the time, laughing as they ran out at the the bottom of the trail –  right next to the campfire.  Perfect.

So I made my way down the regular trail until I came to the cut off and then because I was in a really big hurry, I started running down it. But because I was running and the down hill was steep – I picked up too much speed – And unlike those bigger kids, my legs were pretty short. And more easily caught up under my little body. So instead of arriving by the campfire circle laughing,  I arrived flat on my belly, with my legs – from my ankles to my knees covered in blood.

Obviously I did not make the campfire singing that evening.  

Instead I had to walk back up the regular long trail, all the way to the top, in terrible pain, so that I could be cleaned up at the nurse’s station.

I still have scars.

Sometimes when we talk about plunging into the unknown, making that brave and bold leap, and saying yes to the transformative moment for which you can never fully prepare, we forget to talk about what happens after the leap.  

We forget to talk about the broken skin, the broken hearts, the broken vows, or the broken relationships.  

The proverbial morning after.

Not every fear, it turns out, is unfounded.  Even if the intention is good and the leap righteous, there is still always the possibility that something – if not everything – could go terribly wrong, or that there might be significant and unforeseen collateral damage.  

In a traditional religious setting we would call this the reality of sin.  Which is a word and concept that comes for many with all sorts of feelings of guilt, or shame, left over from other religious traditions, or from cultural influence by fundamentalists overly fixated on enforcing their views of ethical sexuality.

This personal or social baggage obscures the original intent of the word, especially from a Jewish perspective. Which was mostly just the idea of missing the mark.

Depending on the circumstances, missing the mark can be no big deal, or a really big deal. Are we talking about a bunch of friends playing darts and hitting the wall instead of the board? Or ar we talking about a heart surgeon making a slightly-off incision?

Both are missing the mark. The specific circumstances, however, make a big difference.

Coming to grips with the circumstances of our mark-missing – facing them fully, and taking responsibility both for their reality, and their impact, is the work of Teshuvahthe days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that Victoria Safford describes in the reading Ali and I offered.


Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year is an opening, an invitation; Yom Kippur – the day of atonement is the healing.  

Teshuvah is the bridge between the two.

These two Holy Days represent the bulk of what we usually talk about when it comes to forgiveness and the restoration of relationships. When someone asks to be forgiven, we offer forgiveness. It is our practice, our promise. There is nothing you could do that would place you beyond the reach of courageous, transforming love. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, yet again come.

The invitation, and then healing, the return.

On the other hand, the middle journey of Teshuvah, between the two – which has as its root, the word “shuv,” or “turn” has often been treated as if a given, something automatic and obvious, as if too much attention to the work of repair might indicate a lack of compassion, as if all apologies are equal.  As if a small hole in the wall is the same as a small hole in the heart.

It was not quite a year ago – towards the end of last October – when the news broke about the comedian Louis CK and his pattern of appalling behavior with women.  

It was that time where it felt like every day there was one, or sometimes two, powerful influential men, men that we admire or respect, the “good guys” – that we found out had been for years engaging in inappropriate, manipulative, misogynist and/or abusive behavior.

Louis CK probably fit into all of these.

As the stories came out, he issued an apology,  which at the time I thought of as pretty remarkable. Primarily because he started by saying flat out, “These stories are true.”

It’s a low bar, really, but after a bunch of men’s first response was to deny and attempt to discredit and demean the women who were coming forward – it felt revolutionary that he didn’t go there.  Not only did he acknowledge they were telling the truth, he affirmed their experience, and took responsibility:

From his apology:

“I wielded [my] power irresponsibly. I took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it…There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with. I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

And then, he did.  He stepped back.  He stepped away from multiple tv shows, and a movie, and from comedy more generally.  Or rather, all of these stepped away from him. 

As reported by NPR, “He was dropped by his management company. FX, HBO, Netflix all severed ties with him. He pretty much disappeared.”

That is, until three weeks ago, when he showed up for a stand-up spot in a New York City club, indicating that perhaps 10 months was a long-enough time to “listen.”  

The reaction was mixed, with some focused on the price he had paid already, and others wondering if he had yet listened well enough, or grappled fully with his actions….

After all, his “apology statement” never actually said the words “I’m sorry,” and now here he was just slipping back on to a comedy stage with no mention, no acknowledgment, no words uttered for the journey he had been on, “I’m Sorry” or otherwise, and really, no evidence on that stage that anything had changed, no evidence that he had traveled that intervening journey of Teshuvah, a journey that always begins with a turning inward, a commitment to see what is there, to begin the change there, in the heart. 

This is what we can call the “first R of Teshuvah”: Recognition.  Before we can even think about returning, or restoring – we must recognize ourselves not just as we wish we were, but how we actually are. Not just our intentions, but also our impact. To see our complex motivations, those places we keep hidden from ourselves and others;  the ego, the anger, the grief, the fear – often compounded over many years – all of these things that brought us to miss the mark, to keep missing the mark.

And we must recognize the pain we are responsible for –the brokenness – to know that this too is a part of us and our story – and to set this alongside the other reality which is our wholeness.

Our culture today does not do a lot to help us in this work of recognizing our own wrongdoing.  Instead it teaches us to shift blame, and save face, cultivating practices of defensiveness and passive voice acknowledgements.  As in, not “I missed the mark” but “the mark was missed.”  

Rabbi Alan Taylor describes it this way: “We live in a culture that conditions us to avoid suffering [our own, or others].  We are not in the habit of looking at it, but of distracting ourselves from it.  As we begin the process of Teshuvah, we need to make a conscious effort to overcome the momentum of this denial and avoidance.”

Instead of shifting blame, Teshuvah invites us to acknowledge our responsibility, especially by hearing directly from those we hurt directly, or indirectly – individuals, and communities. We attempt to see things from their perspective, to enter their world, if even a little.

And then, we work to accept that these costs, these injuries were in fact the result of our actions. Regardless of our intent. Regardless of other factors that may have been at play. Our job is to simply recognize, and accept.  

Which is why the next R of Teshuvah is often remorse.  The inner conflict that comes with this real acceptance can be overwhelming.  Remorse is one step further than simple regret, which you can feel pretty readily for all sorts of things that you simply wish went differently. Remorse connects us in a deep understanding of the ways our actions led to another’s pain, and it contains the seeds of real change.  

As Rabbi David Blumenthal describes, Remorse “encompass[es] feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of despair, as well as being alienated from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own inner selves.” 

Genuine remorse is often motivating by way of its misery.  We don’t want to know this alienation from ourselves and others in this same way ever again. And so we resolve to refrain from repeating the same action again in the future.

That’s the third r of Teshuvah – refrain.   To simply not pick back up this same path, to commit to the turning, the change – for real.

Because changing habits is never easy, or readily accomplished in a 10 day period marked by an ancient tradition – but rather require daily commitment over the long haul, this is probably a good moment to remind us that this whole path is best traveled with help.

To find what the Jewish tradition might call a minyan – that is not like the little yellow movie character that your children or grandchildren like to dress up as for Halloween – but rather a group of friends and fellow imperfect people who will pray and struggle and grow with you.  

We call this same thing our covenanted community, that is, our congregation – people who promise to practice together new habits of the heart.   

Refraining from repeating the same action fits nicely along the other major move of Teshuvah, which attempts to heal the actual damage done, as in – restitution.  

Repay the money.  Rebuild the reputation.  Tell the truth.

It is not always possible to make things as they were before the break, but as one Jewish teaching acknowledges, “the work of repair has its own intrinsic purposes, regardless of whether or not the repair can ever be accomplished.  It is the effort, and the resulting change of heart, that matters.”

Which brings us back to Louis CK, and the words he said, and the ones he didn’t, and his attempt to return.

Because the last r of Teshuvah is Revelation as in, an out-loud acknowledgment of all the other pieces –  out loud recognition, out loud remorse, out loud resolve to refrain, and out loud attempt at restitution.  

Everything I have read and learned about this process points to the necessity of the verbal acknowledgement, which moves the internal and the hidden to something external and therefore accountable.

As the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar Maimonides wrote, “We need to make this confession with our lips moving; to say these things out loud that we have resolved in our heart.”  

Nothing indicates that an email or text acknowledgment is enough, by the way.  

Depending on the situation of the mark being missed, the out-loud might be offered to one, or to many, to God, or the universe.  With candles and ritual, or over a table in a coffee shop with hearts pounding and palms sweating.  

However it comes, it must acknowledge and integrate all the parts of Teshuvah. Otherwise it remains provisional, partial, and probably inadequate for real return and restoration.  

In this age of shifting blame and saving face, where apologies are considered amazing just for acknowledging that a thing that happened happened. Where it can feel like so much work to go back up the hill and get stitched up.  I have been wondering lately what it would mean for us to take up this practice in every part of our lives – our families, our friendships, our church, our city, our country. 

To imagine that we are capable, and we are worthy of moments just like the poem from Sharon Olds.  Moments where someone we love who has also hurt us, maybe for a long, long time. To imagine they are capable and we are worthy of them coming to us in real recognition, with real remorse, with a commitment to refrain, and a plan for restitution -saying, I am so sorry.  And there in a flash, the sky splinters, and everything changes.

So much so we wonder what we will do with the rest of our lives.  

We know there are many reasons to forgive even if this work never happen. We have to make do with inadequate apologies all the time.  And we are always free – as Lily Tomlin defines forgiveness – to stop wishing for a different or better past.  

It can be so liberating to just – let go.  

But imagine – if we traveled this path more intentionally more fully this path of turning, and turning, and turning again and then from this place, we offer forgiveness:  To say: It’s all right.  And to mean it.  Because the apology is so real, the forgiveness is too.

And so is the healing, and the wholeness, and the being made new.   

Forgiveness offered from this place is not just liberating, it’s transforming.  And it’s a practice we can and should ask of one another, and ourselves.  Not because we are not compassionate, but because we believe so fully in our equal inherent worth, and our interdependence that we are willing to take seriously our own part in this web and take seriously the work needed for repair, the work that comes before atonement, which is better pronounced at-one-ment.  The work to first acknowledge all the cracks across all of our lives, that we have ourselves made, and then together, letting the light shine through.

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