Black Lives Matter

First Reading: Say it With Your Whole Black Mouth by Danez Smith 

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Second Reading: From Kenny Wiley’s A Unitarian Universalist Black Lives Matter Theology 

Sermon: Black Lives Matter 

Listen to this sermon here.  

Was this a long time ago?

My 10 year old son Josef asked me, and the way he asked it made it clear – he wanted the answer to be yes.

I wanted the answer to be yes, too – we all want the answer to be yes.

He had been sitting with me for just a little bit, I was finishing up the documentary 13th.  Which is about the 13th Amendment which banned slavery – but as the documentary explains, really just allowed it to morph into Jim Crow, and then more recently, the criminal “justice” system that today many call the “prison industrial complex.”

Just as Josef had sat down, the footage of Eric Garner being held down while saying “I can’t breathe,” flashed on the screen, and then, Philando Castile in his car, after being shot, with his girlfriend saying, “we just had a tail light out.”

Was this a long time ago?

We all want the answer to be yes.  But instead, I had to say – no.  It was just a couple years ago.

I didn’t tell him, this wasn’t the end.  That it keeps happening.  I couldn’t tell him about Alton Sterling, or Sandra Bland, or Jordan Edwards, or Jamar Clark….

These sudden deaths, without accountability just keep happening – remember from last week, 15 of 30 people murdered by guns everyday are Black men.  And really, this is not new. The only thing that’s new is that there are cameras, and social media.

We may want to say that Black lives matter just the same.  But in the US today, the reality is: it’s not yet true.

One year ago today, white supremacists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia with torches blazing.

They had come to express their “first amendment rights,” often by way of “second amendment” displays. The Rev. Susan Frederick Gray – our UUA President, was there in Charlottesville. She’d come for the counter-protest. Before the march, interfaith leaders had gathered in the Presbyterian church nearby – for prayer, and centering, and connection.  But at a certain point, they realized the church had been surrounded by protestors.  Chanting Nazi slogans, marching to protect the symbols of the confederacy, they had already made their way through the University campus, and after the church, they went next to the synagogue, where the community there had gathered for their Shabbat service.

It was a preview of what was to come the next morning.  You may remember the images of white men in military gear, carrying guns.  Frederick-Gray describes “dozens of white supremacists marching down the street chanting and yelling with shields and helmets, wooden clubs and sticks, [coming] right at faith leaders and peaceful protestors – [but] the police were no where to be seen.”

In her sermon describing Charlottesvillle, Frederick-Gray invited those gathered to “take a moment to reflect on the fact that the police largely stood down to give space for armed white men to carry out intimidation and violence throughout the community of Charlottesville – and compare this to what happened in Ferguson, MO, when unarmed black people came out to the streets to protest and mourn the killing of the young Michael Brown and were met with a militarized police force armed with tear gas and tanks.”

Because Black people are more dangerous, more powerful, bigger – or rather, that’s what studies have shown non-Black people tend to believe about Black people – that they are more dangerous, powerful, bigger – more likely to cause harm.

We’ve seen this play out recently in these over-reactive calls to the police by white folks reporting “suspicious” behavior by Black people. And let’s realize: that white person on that call could be any of us.  And also, let’s promise that it won’t be.  It doesn’t need to be.  Google it.  “Alternatives to calling the police.”  It could be any of us.  Let’s decide together that it will not be.

We also see this prejudiced perception play out on a larger scale – in the prison industrial complex I mentioned earlier.  Despite making up about 6.5% of the US population, Black people make up a little over 40% of the prison population… if you’re a white man, your chances you’ll go to prison in your life is 1 in 17, whereas if you’re Black, it’s 1 in 3.

The image of the Black man especially – but all African Americans as criminal, as threatening – it likely lives somewhere, in most of our brains, whether we want it to or not – it is like the air we breathe.

Which, I want to be careful of saying, in a room of mostly white folks – because what I don’t want to do, is get us all stuck in what Brene Brown calls a “shame spiral.” It’s where so many of us go when we talk about race, and racism.  As Robin Diangelo says, “Perhaps most fundamentally, anti-blackness comes from the deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of Black people from past to present.”

Shame and guilt like this are traumatic – and paralyzing.  We feel shame existentially – believing not just that we’ve done something wrong – but as Brown says it, we are wrong.  Humans will do everything they can to get away from this feeling.  Including come up with stories to justify the unjustifiable, or – get caught in this “spiral” where we feel so much shame, and guilt we cannot engage the conversation at all.

Like a lot of white people, I want to say with all sincerity, I know what it means to love a racist, and to be loved by a racist. Not just the subconscious sort of racist that many of us are – I mean, the sort that comments overtly, directly, the sort that would be upset to share water fountains or bathrooms with Black people.  While I have not personally had to grapple with being the descendant of slave traders or plantation owners, I want to acknowledge that hearing your grandmother asking if the newcomers to town are – N’words, it carries its own lessons, and its own shame.

Vincent Harding – who I spoke about earlier –was one of my teachers in seminary – he used to say that racism injures us all.  He would remind us that we all have a story about where we first learned race – first felt the break in spirits. It would usually take a while for people to pull it up, in their consciousness, but usually, once we started telling, the stories would start pouring out, as well as the tears.  It was his way of getting white people to talk about race, to take a seat at the table, to do their own work, to realize that we do have work to do.

Part of white identity is its absence, its invisibility, its pretense of being “just plain old human.”  Part of white privilege is the opting out of these conversations about race and racism – the sense that racism is not a white problem, that white people know nothing about race – as if whiteness is not dependent on race and racism.  But there is a trade involved in this privilege of being plain-old-persons, that if we dig deep we know – and there is a the loss represented in this trade, a story we had to buy in to – and have to keep buying into to make right the cognitive dissonance of our complicity, to keep living in light of this trauma that we carry, and this generational shame.

It is one of the reasons I feel like it is so hard to talk about race and racism in Fort Collins – there are so many white people here – so many white folks framing the conversation, which means so many missed conversations about race, and whiteness, and the particular ways that this plays out here, in Northern Colorado.

About 18 months ago, I was becoming friends with this woman when she broke the news that she and her family were moving.  They’d only been in town a few years, but they just couldn’t take it anymore – the racism.  She is African American, and she had thought, given the proximity to Denver, Fort Collins may be predominantly white – but we’d probably be pretty open, and progressive. But the cluelessness, the insistence on this being the best place to live, the unwillingness to look at what the realities are like for people of color in this city – she said, it was better to go back to the small town she’d moved from, then to live in a place so unwilling, so unable, so determined to maintain the status quo.

My friend Nathan Ryan, who serves the UU Church in Baton Rouge, likes to remind me that the north is majority white because we designed it that way.  Not too many places were officially whites-only states – like Oregon – but many of us, including Fort Collins, made it very clear that only whites were welcome in shops and schools, and as land owners or elected officials, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by way of our networks, our norms, our unwillingness to imagine ourselves as anything other than “so white.”

My friends of color in town like to make a joke that is not funny, about there being only limited slots for people of color in Fort Collins – so that if someone new is going to move in, someone else will need to leave. It’s not funny, and they aren’t really joking, this is the reality of living here as a person of color.

Black people and other people of color have these sorts of conversations everyday, their whole lives – about the impact and reality of race. But white folks – in Fort Collins, and in this church – we lack anything close to that sort of racial stamina.  We need to grow new muscles and new tools so that we can have the resilience, and the strength to get out of the shame spiral, and instead stay put in the middle of what can be uncomfortable, hard, sometimes heartbreaking work.

Heartbreaking, as in, facing the death of a 17-year-old kid, armed with a sidewalk, some skittles and a hoodie – all of these enough of a threat for his killer to claim self-defense and get away with it.  It was this heartbreaking reality in 2013 – the reality of George Zimmerman getting away with the murder of Trayvon Martin – that inspired the beginnings of the movement for Black Lives, or what is known more popularly as simply Black Lives Matter.

Three Black women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – created Black Lives Matter as a way to build Black-centered political will and to grow a new movement – to affirm Black people’s humanity, contributions to society, and their resilience in the face of deadly oppression.

In my time here at Foothills, there have been five people that I’m aware of – who have decided to leave because they disagreed with the justice-based claims and perspectives offered from this pulpit.  I’ll let you guess about the other 3, but I will say that two of them were upset about something I’d said about  Black Lives Matter.  “They are terrorists, you know, let me send you an article. They are out to kill police.” I read the article, but was not persuaded.

Sitting with my son watching the footage of white cops beating, and shooting, and then the historical footage of white men dragging and pushing, and then a lynching – all with the overlay of Donald Trump’s voice during the presidential campaign where he encouraged his audience towards violence, and then waxed nostalgic for the “good old days” when protestors would be taken out on a stretcher – I thought once again about Theodore Parker’s gun.

The gun I told you last week that Theodore Parker had taken to placing in his desk, given his decision to not cooperate with the 1851 Fugitive Slave Act.  I started to think about Parker’s gun, and that question about power – who has it, who needs it – who feels vulnerable, who is vulnerable – and who has the right to defend that power….

“I don’t like thinking about doing to white folks /

What white folks done to us”

Danez Smith’s poem is – in many ways-  trying too find that line, that question of where violence may be justified.

“here, standing in my own body, I say: The next time

They murder us for the crime of their imaginations

I don’t know what I’ll do”

George Zimmerman felt afraid for his life. And our courts decided, he had a right to act on that fear. Who feels vulnerable, who actually is vulnerable….

There was a time – around 2008– when people started to say racism is over.  There was an article in Forbes, December 30, 2008, that was titled: “Racism in America is Over.”  Or, really, white people started to say, racism is over.  But still for us all, there was this moment of hope.  That we were closer than ever to being able to say to our kids, to ourselves, to our country: yes, that happened a long time ago.  It doesn’t happen anymore.

It is one of the biggest heartbreaks of these past few years in our country – and of the events of Charlottesville: to face the reality that we are not actually there yet.   That Black lives don’t matter the same – yet.

Charlottesville made plain the reality that there remains in our country this great evil, there remains a shadow that haunts us all.  It lives in all of us as trauma, and shame. The effects of this evil – are played out on Black bodies and in Black lives, in the bodies and lives of people of color – every day.  Everyday, our country, and our community keeps saying Black lives do not matter the same – not yet.

Which is why our bold Unitarian Universalist proclamation must remain simply: Black lives matter.

More than any others in this series, I want to name this one as a statement of faith – faith, as in, the living as if something is true, as a way of making it so.

Because there is no wishing the work away, no pointing to the first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of all – and calling it good.  There is no automatic progress by way of time passing, and no free pass just because the only people we see most days are white – that should actually motivate us all the more.  Motivate us to engage the shame and know it for the trauma that it is.  Motivate us to care for one another in the healing. And even more to care for people of color who carry this trauma deep in their souls.  I’d like to imagine us as a church of healers – a people who gather to name the brokenness, the injury, and where we sing and pray and laugh and dance and protest our way to a new wholeness.

One opportunity for this sort of healing work will launch in October in a program called Beloved Conversations, an intensive Unitarian Universalist small group ministry based program for exploring the role of race in our lives.

And still, no program or class is going to close the gap.  The work isn’t like that.  The work is lifetime work, work of humility and courage – as we say in our opening, work that requires undoing systems and norms that were built for a world where Black lives do not matter; and then creating new systems and structures and ways of being – the work of imagining a whole new world into being – a world where

“you are young and Black, and your life matters just the same. You stole something, and your life matters just the same. I have been taught to fear you, and your life matters just the same.”

A world where we can say not as a statement of faith but as a statement of fact, with honesty, authenticity, and conviction: Black lives matter just the same.

 

 

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Kids > Guns

It was 1851, and the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker decided he needed a gun.

“I have been obliged to arm myself.” He told the gathered assembly of Unitarian ministers that May.  “I have written sermons with a pistol in my desk, loaded, ready for action.”

The 1850s were a tumultuous time for our country, a time of stark divisions, a time where to be black was to be endangered, and a time where white people were waking up – some white people, some realizing they could no longer simply stay silent.

This was the reason for the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act – to try to stop these shifting sands – it was a law meant to force the north to cooperate with slavery.  It made it illegal for someone to know about an escaped slave and fail to ensure their return.

I imagine it not too different than what it would be like today, if there was a law that made it so that if any of us knew about someone who was undocumented, but didn’t report them to the authorities, then we would be detained.  It would be a terrible moral dilemma. And it feels especially terrible to imagine this version playing out today, because it feels not completely impossible.

Northerners who had before simply tried not to think about slavery were forced to figure out what they thought, and to decide officially what side they were on.  Would they risk their own security and freedom – or more explicitly cooperate with what most knew was an evil practice with generational consequences?

Many felt the Fugitive Slave Act was their worst nightmare. And also, as we know, sometimes, the worst thing makes possible the beginnings of real change.

Theodore Parker’s activism was already in full force before 1851 – he’d spent his life on the leading edge of religious, moral, and social transformation.  He is the one who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one; but from what I can see, it bends towards justice.”  Parker had a large and integrated congregation that included free black men, and fugitive slaves.  There was no way he was going to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act – it would mean failing to do his part in bending the moral arc.

Image result for theodore parker

Instead, Parker opened his home to fugitive slaves, and protected them, all the while continuing to preach abolition from his pulpit.  Which is why he had been, as he says, obliged to arm himself, keeping a gun in his desk, on the ready.

I wonder what it felt like, to write those sermons with the gun, so nearby.  How it shifted his sense of urgency, how it clarified, or challenged his commitment, how it changed him, his faith, his life.  There was nothing abstract about the risk of his ministry. It was – right there, tangible, intentional, life-threatening.

This is the power of a gun, that it is not only about a gun.  A gun is also about power, shame, ego, fear, control, pain.  A gun is an act of performance, sometimes sport, survival, sometimes rage. When we talk about guns we are not just talking about guns –we are talking about poverty, class, capitalism, racism, domestic violence, patriarchy, mental illness, health care.

We are talking about children, parents, communities, elders. We are talking about our country, our understandings of ourselves. When we are talking about guns, we are talking about us.

There are more than 350 million guns currently in circulation in the US – that means about 120 guns for every 100 people. On an average day, 96 people in the US are killed by guns. Every week, 136 children and teenagers are shot.  More than 30 Americans are murdered by a gun, every day.  About 15 of the 30 of these are black men.  More than 135,000 students in the US have lived through a school shooting in the last 20 years.

Mass shootings are not, however, the biggest threat from guns.  Suicide is.   Having access to a gun makes it much more likely that someone just “thinking about suicide” will complete it.

It’s astounding, the reality of these numbers, though not totally surprising –

“The American idea is caught up in gun violence.”  Charles Blow summarizes in the NY Times. “It is by the barrel that this land was acquired. It is by the barrel that the slave was subdued and his rebellions squashed.  And that is to say nothing of its wars.”

Violence is a deeply embedded part of our cultural identity.  We live in a culture permeated by guns, they are everywhere, so much they can start to be invisible, assumed, the natural order.

And, at least if you talk to the so-called second amendment people today, that is how they think about the individual’s right to own a gun.  Like it’s a human right.  Or at least, a right authorized by the US Constitution as it was originally intended by James Madison.

The story of the second amendment, is however, more complicated than this – in that it has not always been entirely clear-cut, or agreed – even among conservatives – that it was intended to secure the individual’s right to bear arms.

To start, let’s just review what the second amendment actually says:

A well regulated Militia COMMA

being necessary to the security of a free State COMMA

the right of the people to keep and bear Arms COMMA

shall not be infringed.

Growing up, I learned about this amendment in school – along with the other ones. The second amendment lesson was like: that was written when we were pretty new as a country, we needed militia, so we needed to clarify that – but it doesn’t really apply.  We keep it around because we don’t want our numbering to get off.  If you were in school in the 1980s or before, you would’ve likely learned the same thing.

But that is not – we know – how the 2nd amendment is talked about today.  Today, this amendment has nothing to do with the militia, and everything to do with the individual’s right to a gun.

To explain this shift, I have a little trivia:

Question: What new Governor of California in 1967 said these words:  “There is absolutely no reason why out on a street today a civilian should be carrying a loaded weapon.” ?

Answer:

Image result for ronald reagan in front of sacramento state house

Ronald Reagan.

And one more trivia question:  What candidate for President – the first Presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA by the way – said in 1980, “The constitution says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” ?

Answer:

Image result for ronald reagan as president

Also Ronald Reagan.

It is not a coincidence that Reagan’s shift in thinking parallels the shift in the wider US in those same years – because the shift begins in the context of that statement he made in 67.

Reagan was at the forefront of gun control efforts – because he wanted specifically to stop the efforts of the newly formed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

The Black Panther Party for self-defense – not to be confused with, nor entirely separated from the Black Panther comic and movie franchise – was a political organization founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966 to monitor and hold accountable the Oakland Police Department – to police the police.  Newton was a law student, and he’d studied the 2nd amendment, along with state laws, and he was brilliant. So he figured out that there was no legal reason they could not show up in public, for example, in front of the state house as they were deciding about gun control laws, with shotguns.

Which is what they did.  Newton, and Seal, and 28 other members of the Black Panther Party lined up at the state house in Sacramento with 24 loaded guns. .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, .45 caliber pistols.

Image result for photo of black panther at sacramento 1967

Shortly thereafter, Reagan is all:

“There is absolutely no reason why out on a street today a civilian should be carrying a loaded weapon.”

And some of the first gun control laws in the country are passed in California.

With bi-partisan support – making it illegal to carry loaded weapons in public.  Because guns – are never just about guns.  Guns are about power – who has it, who doesn’t, who hopes to gain power. And guns are about the story we tell ourselves about that power, and its righteousness.

The holder of the gun is the protagonist, the hero.  Or they are the villain, the criminal.

Black men lining up holding shot guns on the state capital, even if they are doing nothing more than standing, watching.  We know what role the American idea would cast them in.

On the other hand.  While the California politicians were writing these gun laws to prevent black men from turning up in public with shot guns, white folks were paying attention.

Whether it was meant for them or not, they took it as a threat, and they started mobilizing.  And it was this generation of white gun owners were the ones who ended up transforming the NRA from a gun training, safety and hunting organization to what we know it as today – that is, the “unquestioned leader in the fight against any gun control.”

During the 2016 campaign season, the NRA spent about $419 million on lobbying.

Colorado’s Senator Gardner received nearly $4 million of that.

There was a time when Colorado seemed to be the best hope for new leadership in the conversation around guns.  We have every reason, every heartbreak to fuel bold and courageous leadership.

Next April will mark the 20 year anniversary of the day 2 high school students in Littleton opened fire on their fellow students and teachers, killing 12 and injuring 21 others.  They also took their own lives.

I don’t know if any of you – like me – have personal connections, or nearly, with people present on that day.  What I know for sure is that day changed everything.  For everyone there.  No student, no teacher, no staff – no one went on to live the life they thought they were going to live.  Everything changed.   Or, at least, it seemed like it did.

There was outrage, dialogue, spreading across the country.  Passionate calls for accountability, change. The oldest and largest gunmaker in the US – Smith and Wesson – announced it would implement child-safety triggers, develop “smart guns” and a better system for background checks and other screening.

And then…the NRA went to work.  Boycotts, blackouts, PR nightmares.

Within a year, Smith and Wesson had folded.  The NRA – however –  was stronger than ever.

So really, nothing changed, except we began to learn the pattern – to brace ourselves for the next one, which would come too soon.

Like many white women who grew up in small towns, I am not unfamiliar with guns – guns for hunting most especially have been around most my life. As an adult, I have gone a few times to a shooting range.  My college boyfriend loved shooting, loved the feel of a weapon on his hands, the power.  I didn’t love it, but I do still remember holding the gun. Cold, heavy. A little like holding the wheel of a car for the first time. Some people call it exhilarating. I couldn’t stop thinking about the flash of one moment – life, the next, death.  No do-overs.  No take-backs.

As a religious tradition, we have never come to consensus about violence – when or if ever harming another – especially taking another’s life – is justified. In our history, you can find equal numbers of persuasive and impassioned pleas for pacifism and non-violence as there are assessments of the immorality of inaction in the face of broad acts of evil, especially towards the vulnerable and the marginalized.

Many, like Theodore Parker, came to believe there is a time and a place to make the gun known, available, ready.  In his case, there was a commitment for justice, and a real threat. The danger for himself and those he housed – it was not imaginary.

And also it was not just self-defense.  Because otherwise, he wouldn’t have brought it up in the meeting with his colleagues, the majority of whom had decided to cooperate with the Fugitive Slave Act.  There’s a “pistol in my desk, loaded, ready for action.”  It was a warning to them, and also a wish that they would join him, a call out that they had not.

There is a kind of embedded moral judgment in a gun – a willingness to make a judgment – good/evil; right/wrong;  live/die. A judgment made real singularly, impulsively, irrevocably.

Parker never had to use his gun. It’s hard to know if he would’ve been able, or willing. Not everyone is capable of that sudden, urgent movement, to lift a gun, pull the trigger, hit the target, which is to say, another person.  To take the life.  No take-backs.

This is a problem for our Unitarian Universalist faith, especially the Universalist line – where as the Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle said it, we say that “no one, however criminal, addicted, incorrigible or ruthless is beyond redemption.”

Guns stop the possibility of redemption, stop the path of reconciliation, stop the potential of grace breaking through. Guns mean for clear endings, sometimes in the middle of everything.

Just over a week ago marked the 10-year anniversary – of that day at the Tennessee Valley UU congregation – the congregation where Christopher’s step-father serves – when a man came in to where the service was happening, actually they were having a children’s play, so there were kids up front.

He brought with him a 12 gauge semi-automatic, and a hatred for liberals and gay people.

He opened fire, the adults tackled him.  One man, an usher was killed, as well as a woman.  Seven others were injured.  Just like Columbine, so much came to an end that day, so much was lost.

And also, some new things were born.

Image result for knoxville tennessee uu church

The congregation in Knoxville was the original inspiration for the anthem we’ll sing at the end of the service today, what is now Answering the Call of Love.  Their response after the shooting, especially their steadfast commitment to continue their advocacy for the GLBT community, and their continued spirit of welcome, despite all they’d been through, the ways they did not concede to fear inspired then-UUA president Bill Sinkford to say of them, this is the best of who we are.  This spirit is Unitarian Universalism. 

For a while with Parkland, I played out the regular script, I confess, already anticipated the repeat.

Sometimes it’s all too much to really take in. The script can actually feel helpful, to know it as a script, to keep some distance.

But it didn’t take too many viral videos, before I realized, something else might be happening here.

She is a high school student.  Speaking to thousands.  Holding space with tears running down her face.

Something is happening here.

I could have equally shown you the video of 11 year old Naomi Wadler, who proclaimed she was there to represent the African American girls and women whose stories don’t make the newspaper, the victims of gun violence who are simply statistics.

Or I could have invited some of our youth who are a part of this congregation, who helped with the walk outs here in Fort Collins that were one of 800 March for Our Lives events that happened across the country.

Listen to these – to any of these youth speak, bearing witness to this – you realize that there is a movement happening here that is not just about school shootings – it is not just about one demographic or another.  It is a movement that is asking us to deal with this story of guns, the things that guns are about that are about that is not just about guns: their place in our lives, our country, our stories, our identity.  They are asking us because they know personally, that a gun is never just about a gun, it is about families, and children, race and gender, and economics and poverty – it is always, still about power.   Who thinks they have it, who wants it.  Who thinks they are vulnerable. Who doesn’t want to feel vulnerable.

And so here is my bold proclamation for Unitarian Universalism:

Copy of KIDS _ GUNS

Kids Are Greater Than Guns. 

Of course I mean: their lives matter more than Guns, and we should do everything we can to live out that value – the value of the inherent worth and dignity of every single person – all ages.  Maybe, we could start by studying and applying the lessons of what would really be effective in reducing gun violence.  It would start by re-funding what was de-funded – because we aren’t even allowed to learn what would be effective in reducing gun violence.

But that is not all I mean by Kids are Greater Than Guns – I mean I even more: our children and youth are more powerful than Guns, and the gun lobby.

They have the capacity to change the role of guns as they relate to the idea of being America, and the idea of America itself.

And as evidence, I offer the story that broke in the last couple days, about the NRA claiming financial struggles. And they specifically name the boycotts organized after Parkland.

This is after all, the generation born in the wake of 9/11. That was 17 years ago, so they are turning 17 this year.  Which means, they are nearly not kids, but more accurately, voters.

This is the generation after all, where white people will in 2 years, be the minority.

This is the generation capable of changing the American idea.

In our church we say often that each person has a piece of the truth – and that truth continues to be revealed. Which is another way of saying, the story isn’t over.  We’ve been playing out this script over and over – but something new is still being written.

And it is our job, all of ours, to listen to this new story.  To mentor these students, these children and youth, but also to follow them.  To show up where they show to show up, to pay attention to issues they are raising, to be OK with the ways they are organizing that is not going to be the same way that other generations are organizing, and to believe – and to help them believe that they can lead us into the future that we have not yet been able to deliver for them, but that they are nonetheless prepared to seize.

References

  1. The Secret History of Guns Adam Winkler Sept 2011
  2. Radio Lab Presents: More Perfect “The Gun Show” Oct 2017 
  3. Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter Nov / Dec 2015 
  4. A Gun Maker Once Tried to Reform Itself.  The NRA Nearly Destroyed It.  Avi Selk Feb 27 2018
  5. How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives  Lois Beckett Nov 24 2015
  6. America is The Gun by Charles M. Blow Feb 25 2018
  7. Gun Violence By the Numbers 2018 
  8. America’s Gun Culture in 10 Charts March 21 2018
  9. Walking Through Texas With a Gun and a Mission John H Richardson Oct 15 2015
  10. Why I Sold My Guns Joel Miller Sept 1 1999
  11. The Right to Bear Arms Alan Yuhas Oct 5 2017
  12. Why Taylor Woolrich Wanted a Gun by Madison Pauly Aug 13 2015
  13. The Price We Pay For Liberty Mark Joseph Stern Dec 2 2015
  14. Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas by James Fallows Oct 2 2017
  15. To Stop Violence, Start at Home By Pamela Shifman and Salamishah Tillet Feb 3 2015
  16. Knoxville Stands With Grieving UUs After Shooting Jane Greer July 30 2008
  17. A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism Vols. One and Two Dan McKanan, Editor., Especially in Vol 1 Theodore Parker’s speech to the May Meeting of Unitarian Ministers in 1851.
  18. UUA Take Action on Gun Control Overview 
  19. Fugitive Slave Act Wikipedia Overview
  20. US White Population Declines and Generation Z-Plus is Minority White 
Posted in Justice, Sermons, Theology, Youth Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

God is Trans – Sermon July 15 2018

First Reading – From William Ellery Channing’s Likeness to God

Second Reading – God Says Yes to Me by Kaylin Haught 

Sermon – God is Trans 

A couple of weeks ago, I got into a fight with a stranger on Facebook. It’s not a usual thing, I swear.  It’s never worth it, I know.

But the post – it crossed a line. It wasn’t just wrong, or offensive. It was life-threatening.

A friend from high school posted a video titled: Pediatrician shuts down leftists on puberty blockers.

The pediatrician, it turns out, was the President of the American College of Pediatricians – which in case you don’t know it, is a small group of doctors who left the mainstream American Academy of Pediatricians because they didn’t agree that gay parents aren’t a health threat to their adopted children.

In the video, this “expert” describes how boys are boys, and girls are girls – it’s determined by biology, because science.  She shows a lot of science-y videos that “prove” that doing anything to mess with biology, especially in terms of children and youth who identify as trans –was equivalent to child abuse and/or mutilation.

“This is the sort of video that contributes to the high suicide rate for trans people. I know you care about people and science. [she is a nurse]  But this isn’t caring, or science.”

I even included helpful links to some articles from Scientific American.

She never responded.

What I got instead was Random Other Guy.  You know Random Other Guy.

His post was basically: She’s a pediatrician. What’s not science about it?  “The articles you shared seem pretty ‘convenient.’”

I was like…..so….Scientific American is not science any more?

I wish I could say that at this point, I let it go.

thumb image

“This is not a trend, or just about some random desire for so-called progress. Unless you mean progress in our compassion.” And then I took it up a notch.

“You seem to be confusing gender and sex. Sex is biological. It’s about parts and chromosomes. Even there, the existence of intersex people disproves the idea of a strict binary.  But then, gender.  Gender is about the combination of our relationship with our body, along with our identity – as in, our internal experience, and also our expression – like, how we present ourselves.  These three things together are our gender – and each of them have all sorts of variations and combinations in people – whether you want them to or not. Having particular biological sex parts really has no automatic predictor in terms of a person’s gender identity.  There are trends, of course, but even then, there’s a lot of diversity.”

I had a lot to say…..as did he.

He acknowledged that gay people were fine, and even could, from his perspective, marry.

But that all this that I was describing was simply nonsense.  Non-factual. Non-rational….

The argument went on for a week, or so. Which in Facebook terms is like….10 years.

Never too rough.  But also, I know you’re shocked, but….neither of us converted the other

Eventually I had to just stop. Heart emoji.  Praying hands emoji.

I’ve thought about the exchange a lot since then. Mostly because it made me realize how much I’ve forgotten.  I forgot how deeply entrenched ideas about gender are, how pervasively they impact our world – how we see ourselves, and others, how everything fits together – and how unconscious this can be.

How hard it is to undo these ideas. I forgot that other people – most people have not had years of dialogue and education – workshops and movies on gender, college and graduate school classes….let alone personal relationships with people all across the gender spectrum.

I forgot that most people have not known children and teenagers personally who have struggled with their gender, and whose only path away from suicide was to come out and to find acceptance, including parents and doctors willing to help them align their bodies with their inner realities.

I forgot how obvious it can seem that boys are boys and girls are girls – and how anything else would seem like…. nonsense.

And, most of all I forgot that back when I knew that friend from high school, I might’ve totally agreed with that guy.

See, I grew up in a small town in a remote corner of Washington state.  I grew up Catholic.  Surrounded by loggers, and mill workers, and fishermen. People with really strong ideas about gender.

And, also, in my small town every year, starting from when I was 13 – we hosted a big conference for what I understood then as cross-dressing men.

Now I realize it was much more broadly for people who had been assigned male at birth and yet were in some way or another gender-transgressive – cross-dressers, drag queens, trans women, and everything beyond or in between.

There were workshops around fashion, and make up, and also support groups.  We always knew it was coming because the local paper would run a front page story about it.

It was held at the restaurant and hotel owned by one of my parents’ good friends, the restaurant where I waited tables through high school and some of college.

Sometimes for date nights, my parents would go with their friends to dinner there just with the hopes of spotting a glimpse of people attending the conference.  It was the thing to do each time they were in town. Remember….small town.

They were strange, and fascinating.

Why did they do it? What did it mean? Did they want to be women? Did their wives know?

We did not lack compassion, my town.  Not really.  They were welcomed back every year – and they are still coming, every year.  We weren’t cruel, not overtly.  But we were – confused.

Which is actually an entirely appropriate place to be, most of the time, when it comes to gender.  Gender is confusing.  Gender norms and expectations attempt to stabilize and make rational and predictable what is in reality most often fluid, complex, highly personal, and often, yes – strange.

We apply and enforce these boxes and categories…….Like activist/comedian and TED Talk presenter Sam Killerman describes:  We’re taught that “Boys are aggressive, impetuous, good at math, love the color blue. They get dirty, rough house, play sports, not house.  Boys can grow up and be whatever they want. There is no bar too high, or goal too far away, unless they want to be a nurse, ‘cuz that’s just gay.  Girls are passive, docile, natural caretakers, love the color pink, born to be good bakers.  They hate bugs, love hugs, and are better at vacuuming rugs.  Girls grow up to be moms, leave the other jobs to dads. Unless they want to be a teacher, a nurse, a receptionist, or a clerk. Two options to describe every person in this world,  7 billion individual identities, simplified into two.”

Gender is the original polarizing force!

Not only do we learn these categories and assumptions, we become recruited into the enforcement squad – usually without our explicit consent or even total awareness.

For example, my almost-13-year-old daughter is really into make-up.  And babies.  She loves babies.  Well, a couple of years ago she told us she was really into soccer, too.  And we were like, ha. You know there’s no make up there, right?

abby wambach GIF

We signed her up but were pretty sure she’d hate it….and she proved us wrong at every turn.  It turns out she is really into soccer – especially the part where she can aggressively steal the ball from other girls and kick

it really hard down to the other end of the field.

It is absurd that it would come as a surprise in any way that a person can both love make up and want to destroy their opponent.  After all I know – the gender-binary should be obliterated in my mind….

Except that this whole time there has also always been this other campaign directed at me – and all of us – all the time.  This campaign to harden the categories, to keep the separation, to widen the divide.  Advertising, literature, movies, messages from church and my family, doctors, therapists – from school – children can be the most serious in their gender-policing! – questions from friends and strangers, helpful advice in parenting books and from fellow parents.

It’s like, the water we all swim in.

So that today, even as the theory and the personal stories around gender as a spectrum have exploded into the mainstream, that default of the old images – just will not go away.

And suddenly I’m a front-line recruit to the gender binary police force. We all are.

And this is where we come to God. Because God – works the same way. Or rather, images of God work the same way.

45 years ago Mary Daly, in her groundbreaking book – Beyond God the Father described how “the biblical and popular images of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years.”

(It is the water we swim in.)

Daly goes on to describe the life-destroying consequences of this default-image of God as Father.

Image result for mary daly if god is male then male is god

In 1997 Bill Jones picked up similar themes in his book, Is God a White Racist? But just around the violent consequences of having imaged God as white –  another under-explored default.

How we image God always has huge consequences.

“We” – as in, our society, our culture – and also “we” – our Unitarian Universalist faith, and we in this congregation, and also we, as in us, individually, personally – as in those sub-conscious, implicit, default images that come to mind without even thinking about it.

And by “God,” I mean: the ultimate, the infinite, the big everything of everything past, present, future – noun, and verb.  The big connecting force that we don’t have words for.

This is theology – literally, God-Talk.  To put words on things there aren’t words for.  To attempt to understand something that is by-definition impossible to understand.

How we image God always has huge consequences. Even for those of us who trend more atheistic, for two major reasons.  First, because – just like with gender, our subconscious images dictate our thinking and our choices more than we often realize.   So that when things fall apart in our own lives – or when the world around us feels impossibly broken and heart-wrenching – that is, when we get to asking the big questions of why, and how, and where we can find hope, or help now – we can end up inadvertently relying on outdated, oppressive – and worst of all empty image of God – that is, empty, unhelpful notions of ultimate meaning, and purpose. And in these times, we all need access to help that feels actually helpful, tools that actually equip us to keep moving forward, keep living.

And secondly, because none of us can escape these waters. We who live in the US in 2018.  Whether we choose to engage in the conversation or not, let alone whether or not we “believe” in these notions of God – we all live with the emotional, social, and legal fall out of how God is being imagined and languaged today. All of us.

Which is why I’ve always been an advocate for atheists becoming the most fluent in God-talk.  To think of God-talk as the ultimate humanist project. Because despite the sometimes-needy portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible, God talk is not actually for God.

God – whatever God is – doesn’t need our God talk. God-talk is for, and even I’d say – about humans.

This is in many ways, what William Ellery Channing,  the sometimes-noted Father of Unitarianism (the water we all swim in), was after in his sermon, “Likeness to God.”

It was the early 19th century in New England, and Calvinism was all the rage. Humans were worthless worms, incapable of change – goodness was in God, and God only.  By God’s grace some humans were saved, but that had nothing to do with human effort, or human choice.  Humans were uniformly, eternally wicked.

So Channing, from his pulpit in 1828, was like that is ridiculous.  Except the 8500 word version.

His argument was primarily an epistemological one – the question of how we know what we know – as in, how do we know what we know about God, and how do we know what we know about humans? Channing basically drew a line from one of these to the other, God-Humans, saying  “Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? We derive them from our own souls.”

He was saying: what we know about God we know because of what we know in ourselves. Which means, we cannot describe God as good without it being a reflection of the goodness in ourselves. If we claim God to be good, then we must also affirm ourselves as good.

Though Channing’s preaching led to the official start of Unitarianism, he was not the first in our tradition to critique traditional theological claims – we trace our story through the great many individuals and communities who have historically as Rebecca Parker describes: “dissented from notions of God as a controlling and wrathful deity who demands obedience,” and those who “let go of dogmas that didn’t make rational sense; and critiqued views of God that sanction unjust social arrangements – such as the paternalistic old white man in the clouds who reinforces white male dominance.”

In place of these life-demeaning images and ideas, our religious tradition has attempted to offer alternatives – ones that seek to offer what the gospel of John describes as the point:  abundant life, for all.

Which is why – the first time I heard the saying “God is Trans,” I reacted with a mix of both delight, and disappointment.

Image result for united church of christ god is transgender

Disappointment, because: Why didn’t we come up with that? I mean – I know why – we take ourselves out of the conversation all the time.  We are afraid to do such direct God-talk in public in case we’d fail to convey our atheist welcome.  But the conversation goes on….this humanist conversation whose consequences play out with humans. It goes on.  Without us.

But then mostly…delight.

God. Is. Transgender.  Yessssss Yes yes.  It’s such a fabulous Unitarian Universalist notion.

For God to be affirmed as something that everyone wants to nail down and categorize, but that actually cannot be categorized – to say that no, God is actually infinitely complex, transgressive, often confusing, and even troubling – sometimes on purpose.

For God to be that which refuses polarization, over-generalization – and for the divine image to be centered with the queer, the outcast – to affirm the trans experience as beautiful, holy, sacred – as ultimate – especially today.

It feels liberating, life-saving.

One of the first things our President did, as he took office, was to re-instate a transgender military ban and rescind Title IX protections for transgender students in public schools. And one time – he says it was just a joke.  But he said – about the Vice President, when it comes to people who are trans – or actually any members of the queer community – “he wants to hang them all.”

That the past three years have been the deadliest on record for trans people should be no surprise, to any of us.

To imagine that this is where God is – in a time such as this. To proclaim boldly that God is Trans – is radical, liberating, and life-saving.

Even more, to allow this image of God as trans to challenge us to go further – in our imaginations around gender, and God, to push ourselves to expand the internal unconscious message for both – to change out this water we’ve been swimming in (I thought, maybe this is what we should actually mean when we say we’ll drain the swamp?), to refuse to be drafted to either the gender- or God-norms enforcement squad….

But instead to offer – with some intention – an alternative, a life-giving theology that welcomes the fullest possible spectrum of humanity, and of divinity – and to maintain what Albert Einstein called a “holy curiosity” for all that remains mysterious and out of our view, and out of our control…it feels liberating, life-saving, and most of all, it is who we are.

This is our tradition, our story, our faith, our practice, and it is our calling as Unitarian Universalists today.

And so let us proclaim, boldly, joyfully, with courageous love, and as Unitarian Universalists:

God is Trans.

Amen.

Posted in Sermons, Sexuality, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TMI

There was a period of time, when my kids were young, when a good number of people I’ve never met knew more about my kids than many of my close friends.

These people knew a little about me, too, that I was a minister, for example. But about my kids, they knew all sorts of things. How Gracie would not sleep, how we were worried about Josef hitting his milestones.

These were minor things, really not too big a deal, for strangers to know.  But they also knew other things.  About my kids’ birth mom, and their foster care journey – things that still some of my close friends don’t know, things I’d consider too intimate to share from the pulpit, let alone with a bunch of people I’ve never even met.

These people, as far as I know, shared only two obvious things in common, first, they likely lived in or near Olympia, Washington; and, second, they all had a need for new furniture, and all decided to go look for that new furniture at a Macy’s furniture store near the Olympia Mall….where my mom worked for over two decades.

And, where my mom loved to share all the things about all her people with all those who came shopping for furniture.

My mother has been a good sport given all the times I’ve talked about her in sermons, and I have talked about her A LOT. Sometimes not in the most flattering light.  I appreciate this, so much, because my mom does make for really good stories.  Other than asking me to sometimes make sure people know that – even though she had a hard time when I first came out, she came around and is now my partner’s biggest fan.

Other than that request, she mostly just runs with it.  Which, I’ve always thought had to be because she knows, given her impulse to share with anyone and everyone – anything and everything – it’s all kind of fair game in return.

My mom’s tendency for TMI has meant I have spent much of my life trying to sort out the question of what to share, or when, and with whom.

TMI – that is, too much information, isn’t just about providing too much detail – it’s more – when what’s being shared is too personal, or intimate to be shared at all, or at least with the person or persons you are sharing with.

The phrase didn’t exist when I was growing up, or I would’ve said it a lot, both to my mom, and sometimes to myself. As a kid I was simultaneously the one that always had their hand raised wanting to share, and the kid that felt total shame and embarrassment after having actually shared, anything, even if it wasn’t actually TMI.

Researcher and writer Brene Brown calls the shame that comes after sharing a “vulnerability hangover.”   Brown is well known for her work around vulnerability, which she describes as the birthplace of true belonging, the practice of showing up with our “authentic imperfect selves” and “letting ourselves be seen.”

The flip side to this courageous practice, however, is – as she says, “that feeling when you wake up and everything feels fine until the memory of laying yourself open washes over you and you want to hide under the covers” forever.  That feeling is a vulnerability hangover.

Thinking back over the past few Sundays at Foothills, and our Be Real series, one of the moments that stands out for me is the Sunday after our #MeToo service.

It was Easter Sunday, which is usually one of the most up-beat services in the year, everyone comes in with that hopeful, spring-like feeling….but in the first few moments in all three services, there was an uncharacteristic tentativeness in the room, a shyness, a tenderness – did you notice?

Between the services Sean and I checked in – what was going on – though we got to the usual Easter feeling by mid-way, all the services started out nervous.  I think Sean was the one to wonder aloud – maybe, they have a vulnerability hangover.

The #MeToo service was intensely vulnerable, for many of us, and coming back into the space as a community for the first time, consciously or sub-consciously, maybe it just hit that space in us that I felt as a little kid – first, so grateful to have raised my hand, so happy to be called on, and to get to share – and then after having talked, wondering what in the world I was thinking.

Vulnerability is a tricky thing, and not just for me, or my mom. It’s tricky for all of us.  It’s the thing we are drawn to in others – think of anyone who you’ve heard speak that you found powerful and engaging, it’s usually someone who has shared something vulnerable.  But, as Brown says, but it is also often “the thing we are repelled by in ourselves. We see it as courage in others, and inadequacy in ourselves.”

The vulnerability hangover – unlike other sorts of hangovers – doesn’t necessarily mean we overdid it, but more that we pushed ourselves outside our comfort zone – and the “hide under the covers feeling” reflects the fear that what we have shared will have revealed us as unworthy, less than – that we will become reduced to our disclosure rather than heard in the fullness of our truth – and that rather than the connection we were seeking, we will experience the opposite –  judgment, rejection, more shame.

This is why I almost always assume that the thing that someone talks to me about may not be the thing they actually want to talk to me about.  People want to be seen, and heard, and known –not just want, need.  We need to be seen, heard, and known.

It’s why we did a series called “Be Real” in the first place – it’s a basic human need – this longing to belong, not as the person you wish you were, or the person the world says you should be, but as you, flawed and also whole, and good, and still learning.

But we are also scared of being seen, heard, known, which means we are often unpracticed at sharing and revealing. So instead of saying the thing that would allow us to be seen and heard and known, we say other things that keep us mostly safe and hidden. We share opinions and disclose our expertise, sometimes at length; we debate ideas and politicians that we don’t know personally; we offer our insights that for the most part keep our real selves shielded, but also inevitably frustrated and angry that we aren’t being seen, or heard, or known.

I try to remember when someone is especially heated in their idea sharing, or especially passionate in their analysis of a situation large or small – that behind that fire is a huge longing to connect, to be seen, and heard, and known.

In a small group I was leading a couple of years ago, we were exploring these sorts of questions, and one of the participants shared that one of the main reasons she was in the group was because really wanted to learn “how to share and express her feelings, in an appropriate way.”

When she said that, I thought to myself, that is maybe the most Unitarian thing to say ever.

Because this is so often what Unitarian Universalists struggle with.

We are so often well versed in academics, or in business or with social and political activism. But knowing how we feel, as individuals, in our own lives, and then learning how to name those feelings, and the stories behind them, and maybe even the underlying need they connect to, and then sharing those stories in an appropriate way with others.  We’re beginners.

Which means, that sometimes in our attempts to be seen and known, we do the opposite of holding back from our stories, and instead go all in, and suddenly find ourselves knee-deep in TMI.

You know, that impulse when you’ve just met someone and they seem really great, and you have a lot in common, and you’re sure that they could totally be your friend…and suddenly find yourself disclosing a really vulnerable story or reality about your life – I wish I could say I didn’t have an example that immediately comes to mind.

But a couple of years ago, I was having coffee with a potential new friend.  We’d hung out a little before, but this was our first sit down and chat, and after a few sips, I launched into a struggle that I was working through, and gave lots of detail, and….I way overshared.  I knew it about three quarters of the way through.  But it was too late.  I still blush when I think about it.

It’s not easy to make friends as adults, and so sometimes we try to jump ahead. It happens.

What’s interesting about these moments of oversharing is that actually they have the same impact as not sharing at all. Which is why Brown theorizes that oversharing is just as much a strategy to avoid vulnerability as under-sharing.  Because oversharing attempts to manifest connection before the connection has actually been earned – tries to gain a connection without risking real intimacy, and “tests” a relationship to see if it is actually trustworthy for real connection.

But since oversharing often “results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement,” the answer to this trust question usually ends up being a resounding, “no,” which just reinforces the skepticism that led to the over-share in the first place.

I have found that this question of what to share, and with whom, and how much – has not gotten any easier as a minister – where connection is like the main point of the job, but also so are boundaries.  This is true for any of us in a public role, or in a position of trust – or even for any of us who are on social media – which, as congress has been trying really hard to work out this week – is far from a “private” conversation.

Carey Nieuwhof, a Christian pastor and leadership teacher talks about trying to navigate the question of sharing, and oversharing, and how early in his career, he was reticent to disclose anything personal about himself, and definitely didn’t want to “share [his] struggles, [because he] thought [he] had to have it all together.”

As he started to get more experience in ministry, however, he started to share more, until at one point, he had just gone through a time of serious burnout, and he was coming out of it, and he decided to share with people what he had just gone through with a class he was teaching.  Afterwards, one of the organizers of the event came up to him and said,

“‘Wow….that was tough…Are you sure you don’t need more counseling?’”

He realized instantly the mistake he had made –  It wasn’t that he shouldn’t share the stories of his burnout with someone – but at that tender stage where they weren’t fully processed, it probably wasn’t yet time to be sharing with these strangers enrolled in his leadership seminar.

Nieuwhof says that since then, he’s been clear about that you shouldn’t share something with strangers that you haven’t fully processed yourself.  What you share in “public” are those things that you’ve worked through to some degree – the Rev. Nancy Bowen says – I believe in a wounded healer, just not one that’s actively bleeding.

Whatever stuff you are currently still trying to work through – that stuff doesn’t belong with anyone other than your “inner circle,” your trusted friends, and family, which means you need an inner circle of trusted friends, family, mentors.  And I mean, really, one, or two, maybe three – that’s a lot.

Sometimes our culture gives us an idea that we should have a whole host of close friends – but that just isn’t the way it works.  One. Maybe two.  Three if you are the luckiest person ever.  These are the people that can hear all of it – in whatever state the story is in – processed or totally raw…the ones who, as Brown says, wade into the deep with you. 

And then maybe there’s another layer beyond that of people that you can share most of the stuff with.  Another two, three, four.  Maybe.

I already said it’s hard to make friends as adults, so I understand the struggle here, truly.

But also, this week….this week has been another week that reminds me how much this all matters – for all of us – and for our world – that we are going to make it in these times, if we are going to find a way forward – this seeing each other, hearing each other,  holding each other – it needs our attention, commitment, and discipline. Which makes it sound way less fun than it is!

My inner circle, when we get together, we spend a lot of time laughing.  Even when we’re wading in the deep. Belly aching, tear-mixed, healing laughter.

It’s often a reason that people will come to church, to make these sorts of friends (if we talk to any of our new members I’m guessing a good portion would mention friends as a motivator) – but even here, how to go about it isn’t obvious.  Because, if you go up to someone in the social hall after the service, with your coffee, and launch into that story you’ve been needing to share and be heard and seen for…I’m thinking you’re going to get that same look my potential friend gave me when she and I went for coffee.

Even here it takes time, commitment, discipline – laughter – join a gather group or other small group if you haven’t yet, serve with others, show up, join in, be real – as our series since January have been encouraging.   There’s no magic route to developing an “inner circle.”  There’s no fast track here, or anywhere.

It takes time, and worse than that, it takes failure.  It takes being willing to trust people that end up being unworthy of your trust, and it takes opening yourself up to rejection, and the ways that love just will not promise to stop breaking our hearts.

But then the amazing thing is that sometimes….it works.  Suddenly that friend you’ve been building relationship with, being vulnerable with, sharing your stories of struggle with – they hear us into speech, listen us into belonging, hold us with an openness that feels both like home, and the wide open sky, all at once.  We find ourselves laughing our way into healing, and resilience, and a capacity to keep going.

And so we keep trying, keep practicing, keep sharing our stories, and keep making space for the real, the brave, and the becoming more brave – together.

May it be so, and amen.

Posted in Personal Stories, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

True Lies – An April Fool’s Day Easter Sermon

Before the sermon we explored the Gospel of Mark’s telling of the empty tomb, and the idea that the truth of a story isn’t as important as the truth in a story.

Then, we read Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front 

Then, the Sermon….

As you heard, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are charged with telling this wild story, which means that here we are, for the second Sunday in a row,
dealing with the question of whether or not to believe women.

In the version of the gospel we shared today – which is from Mark, their fear of being believed, or not, keeps them quiet – they never tell. In another version, Luke, they come back from the tomb, and they tell all the disciples what they have seen, and heard – that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And the disciples are confident it’s a trick. Except Peter – who at least thought there might be a possibility…..their words weren’t in and of themselves enough, but they got him wondering – so he runs to the tomb to see the evidence for himself.

Regardless though of who is doing the telling, the resurrection part of the Jesus story
has always been for many, the hardest to believe, in the literal sense at least, even more than all the other miracles found throughout the gospel stories. Unitarians and other literal-minded folks throughout the last few centuries have often struggled with or downright rejected the whole idea as a result.

While we can appreciate Jesus the teacher, or Jesus the radical rabble rouser, or even Jesus the prophet, Jesus who died and then was literally raised from the dead is for many
simply…taking things too far.

And yet, as the Rev. Parisa Parsa points out, this is the part of the story “most strongly attested by the community around [Jesus]. And the prevalence of these stories
preserved by his contemporaries leads [some scholars] to argue that something must have happened that truly defies reason, or science, something more than just a powerful metaphor.”

Unitarian Universalist writer Liz James tells how one of her friends shared the story of Easter in her congregation, just like Eleanor and Sean did. At the end, her friend told her church how we don’t know for sure what the ending of the story means – if Jesus actually rose from the dead, or if loving hands came and got him and buried him somewhere secret and safe, or if the whole thing is a myth that may not be factually true,
but points to something true.

But then, from the second row of the congregation, a young voice laced with obvious exasperation piped up, “Why don’t they just google it?”

I thought this was a fun idea, and so I did google it – “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”

There are 44 million results. A quick scan indicates the results are heavily swayed towards YES. But, I’m guessing this doesn’t entirely settle it.

This is the irony of truth today. The facts are more accessible to us in ways we couldn’t have even imagined a couple of decades ago, so that, in a flash, debate and wonderings about the truth that used to go on over the course of a whole social evening – can be stopped through a quick consult with someone’s phone. (Why don’t you just google it?)

At the same time, truth, has never felt so contested and unclear. Lately, more often than actual news (let alone personal updates) in my social news feed, there have been tips about how to determine if the thing my friends and family have been posting
actually happened, or if it’s instead someone’s idea of a bad joke, or maybe someone’s idea of how to bring down democracy.  These things are hard to discern, and not just on April 1st.

This “post-truth” world causes many of us a lot of worry – a few of you have asked me if we should hold classes about how to de-bunk fake news, or how to tell opinion from facts, and the most popular request: how to win an argument with a relative who won’t accept that the facts are the facts. In each case, maybe you’ve noticed, I’ve nodded along, and then said, probably not.

Before anyone misunderstands where I’m headed with this sermon, let me be clear, I am not against, or even disinterested in the literal truth. I’m all in on Scott Denning’s climate change presentation, and just as much, I find the scholarship around the historical Jesus fascinating. And, as a Unitarian Universalist, I also want to say, I respect the faith of those here and in other religious communities whose commitment to the factual truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a salvific reality.

With that said for today, I want to suggest that something matters more in this story – and in our world – and in our lives – than facts. And actually the best thing, the best good news for our world today – about this story,  is how disconnected from facts it is,
how impossible, how contested. That despite the question that remains these 2,000 years later hardly anyone thinks it can be solved by googling it. This is the best good news
for us because, in a “post-truth” world, when we let the facts go entirely – and release ourselves from even trying to engage the facts as a way to win over a sense of truth (and if you’ve read the articles or tried even a little bit you know it doesn’t work anyway) if we can resign from that battle over facts – then we can get into the more serious, revolutionary, and hopeful battle available to us which is, the battle of imagination.

The battle of imagination is an idea promoted by activist and organizer adrienne maree brown, whose book emergent strategy I carry with me wherever I go because I find it relevant to nearly everything these days.

Brown reminds us that the world we are living in right now, was born in someone’s imagination, these constructs came from someone’s imagination – many someone’s,
this hierarchy – these are not “natural,” not a given. All of this was born in the imaginations of “people who think women and black people and people from other countries and people with different abilities or desires are dangerous and inferior.”
We see the impact of these powerful and destructive imaginings playing out in real life,
and in lives that are lost Stephon Clark being just the most recent terrible, tragic example.

What is powerful about this idea, however is that if this world today was born in imagination, then another world can be born in the same way.

Look back at any of history’s major movements for social change, or any happening today you’ll find the work of imagination – social, moral, prophetic – collaborative and creative, imagination that inspires and compels people to act in real life in service of a robust future that, as Brown describes it, is so abundant, “it bursts the seams of the outdated imagination” that can no longer hold us, or hold what we are becoming.

Brown lifts up slavery as one of the best examples of the power of imagination –
because if you were born into a world where Black lives were less than human,
and where Black bodies were enslaved – you could come to think of this reality
as “natural,” a given – but in the imagination of slaves, and their allies,
another idea and another world was born. From this imagination, experiments began,
to try to break free, and then also failures, and then learning from those failures, and then more experiments, until the dream grew was so big, it could not stay in dream land,
and as the musical Hamilton puts it, “the world turned upside down.”

In the midst of their despair and diaspora, the Jews too turned to this imagination – it is the basis for the messianic hope that Christians believe Jesus came to fulfill.

For the Jews, they imagined a change-agent would arrive on the scene, someone who could turn the world around, a king, or another powerful figure – one that would have the capacity to influence the social order.

The early Christian imagination took up this story, but then imagined it still another way – as Jesus was not a King and did not have any particular power. So, in their imagination,
a savior need not be rich, or powerful, but might instead be a poor carpenter’s son without any official authority – and in their imagination they started to see a world where humility and service and sacrifice would be considered the core indicators
of a great redeemer and liberator….

And here we are, over 2000 years later. Their ridiculous imagination grounded in the impossible and never been seen before has influenced billions of people, and shaped the course of entire civilizations.

Brown reminds us however, that imagination can’t start there – in the realm of whole civilizations. Instead imagination’s power matters most in the smallest, everyday ways.

As she says it, “small is all.”

By this she means, there is no such thing as generic “communities” working for social change – there are only real lives – friends and partners trying to survive and thrive in the every day, trying to make clear their humanity, while also struggling with their marriages, and their kids, raising their grandchildren and paying their bills,
and also with dealing illness and addiction, and grief and loss, and also often lonely,
and longing for something more.

Here too, in the small imagination propels us forward, in this tangled blessing of life,
and makes possible this surviving, and thriving. As Jewish Rabbi and family systems specialist Edwin Friedman says it: whenever “anyone is in [crisis,] (whether it is martial, economic, political, or health), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see.”

What is challenging about this, however, is that in these times of personal crisis,
or in the days when the social structures feel especially dangerous, and increasingly oppressive – often then, imagination becomes the most fragile, and often the first casualty – as options close down, and the world tightens around us.

When I was first coming out, my parents were really struggling, and I remember still a feeling like the only options before me were either – losing relationship with my parents entirely, or, spending my life in the closet.

That was it. That’s all I could imagine, and the more I thought of it, the more despair I felt, and the more sure I was that this was it. Luckily, I had a great therapist around that time, that helped me loosen up this stubborn binary, and discover instead a huge variety of complex options, not all of them catastrophic.

When imagination starts to shut down, we often need other people to help us lift our gaze, and shake loose our souls, to walk alongside us, and care for us, and to help remember all the still unfolding and deeply diverse pieces of the truth that are still unfolding.  We need others to laugh with us, and play with us, and most of all to try out with us the wild experiments that will help us discover and sustain a more robust imaginative field.

Luckily, our post-truth world helps us in this as well – as the same conditions that make truth so hard to define have also allowed us to connect with more people, and to learn from more people’s imaginings than ever before.

As an example, Brown lifts up the activists working in Palestine who have connected with the Black Lives Matter activists to provide support, and to share lessons and strategies. This expansive field for partners in imagination not only helps us grow our sense of the possible, but also widens our vision so that it becomes even more likely
that the world we create together can hold us all. Or, at least, as long as we keep making space for different and divergent perspectives, and allow a variety of understandings and experiences to co-exist – even when these stories like our different understandings of the Jesus narrative are contradictory or ambiguous.

As Parisa Parsa says, “If there is any hope for peace in this world, it lies in deepening awareness that we do not have to let go of the complexity of our stories or our lives for the sake of righteousness….” but instead we can keep growing our capacity to hold and manage ambiguity, and even discontinuity, and instead learn to live in the tension.
Because here is the site of discovery, and learning, beginnings and possibilities.

The story of Easter, despite the pastels and the candy in its popular celebration
is a story of a people in crisis, and also, a story of people who refused the pull of despair.
Regardless of the facts of the empty tomb, the story they spun transformed their grief into hope, their pain into vision, and death into life.

On this Easter morning, may we all follow their example, and embrace the wild, the impossible, the unexpected – “Do something everyday that won’t compute. Love the world. Work for nothing. Be joyful, though we have considered all the facts.” Let’s imagine a world beyond what we can currently see, and then go out even further than that.  Until we discover a freedom that can match the greatest longings of a generation not yet born and a joy that will sustain us, and feed us, and carry us home – into this new world risen and redeemed for us all.

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#MeToo

Tarana-Recovered.pn

Listen to this sermon on podcast here.

See the whole service on video here.

 

 

Sermon – March 25, 2018

To be honest, before I found Unitarian Universalism, I thought all religion was patriarchal, and sexist.

Finding this faith nearly 20 years ago, however, I discovered a new hope, and a new vision: a church where women’s lives, voices, and stories were respected equally, where bodies weren’t scorned but valued, and where healthy sexuality was considered integral to healthy spirituality.

Even more revolutionary: here was a church that promised to help each other to be their best selves, most of all by seeking and speaking – rather than covering up the truth, in love.  Here was a church that practiced mutual learning, and mutual accountability.

A few months after I joined my first UU church, however, I realized, despite these stated promises, or our feminist intentions, and even regardless of our sexuality education that teaches consent and the complicating nature of power starting in Kindergarten – we, like all religious institutions and all humans, have a shadow side – the things we don’t want to or can’t talk about, the things that we aren’t even able to see.

Little by little, the stories of the past minister of my new church started to emerge. He had assaulted women in the church under the guise of pastoral care; families had been torn apart in the name of “free love.”

I wasn’t too dismayed by the news of the misconduct itself, however – Unitarian Universalism had never promised to be anything other than a human institution, filled with humans.

What gave me pause was the response.

First, the length of time this misconduct continued – nearly three decades – without any direct response from leaders, or the church as a whole.

And, more disturbingly, many years after he’d left, there appeared to still be no shared understanding of the damage his behavior had caused, no open conversation about power or religious authority, and no apparent attempt to restore the broken covenant.

Instead there was a sense that “we dealt with that, let’s move on.”  But clearly, they hadn’t.

Since then, I’ve learned that my first Unitarian Universalist congregation’s story was far from unique. The Rev. Deborah Pope-Lance – our faith’s foremost expert in sexual misconduct – estimates that nearly 70% of our congregations have a history of misconduct or abuse by their ministers. In a recent phone call, she confessed she was starting to believe the prevalence was actually much higher.  The stories are still surfacing, after decades of shame, pain, and flat-out cover up.

Last month, in a gathering with other Unitarian Universalist ministers when talked about the #MeToo movement, and the way it is playing out in our congregations, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and half-whispered, I wonder how many of our male colleagues are out there right now, worried, that their story is the next one to surface?

We both took a deep breath because this is not news.  It’s all family.

#MeToo always begins here.  In our family, our lives, our stories.  In all our struggles, and pain, complications and questions, challenges, and opportunities.  There is no “them” in #MeToo, it’s all us.

Nothing brought this home to me more than over the past few weeks as I received some of your – that is, our – #MeToo stories.  They were slow to come in at first, and I worried maybe we wouldn’t have enough.  And then spring break ended, and I started worrying about having too many.

It’s one thing to hear statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence, or to hear the experiences themselves, one at a time.

It’s another to absorb in a few moments the many, many stories of pain, confusion, shame, anger, violence, secrecy, and also resilience, hope and resistance, that are present, not somewhere else, but here.

Later in the service we’ll have a ritual where we’ll share some of these stories on the screen.  I want to tell you now that I was right to worry – it is too many.  Way too many.

Hearing these stories requires a tolerance for truth-telling, and truth-receiving, beyond what we usually ask of one another, and ourselves, in this space.

And still this is what we’re asking today. Because these are our stories, and this is us. These are our lives that we have often kept hidden, in an effort to protect – first, to protect ourselves, afraid we would be judged, shamed, or worse. And these are our truths we’ve kept hidden because they are dangerous not just for us – but for at least one other person, the one who harmed us, who failed us, or who failed to believe we mattered enough.

And these others are also often not “them,” but still, us. People we admire, and trust, and love.

Last January, when we discovered that our beloved and brilliant music director had been misconducting in our congregation, when the stories began to be told –it was confusing for many of us, even those of us who had all the details.  Even for me. I mean, I had all the facts, but still, it made no sense.

It felt impossible to reconcile the good – his good, the good we’d received from him – with the news of his harm.  And the loss we felt with his absence, and the pain we imagined him being in, losing this community, and his reputation…some wondered if it was really so bad, what he did, to have to suffer so much.

This is the theological question at stake in the #MeToo conversation:  whose suffering matters, and whose pain?

I ordered the new street signs to say “We Believe Women” because I know the conversation has to start with a willingness to believe – women, and also marginalized people of all kinds, to center their voices.

But ultimately, I’m not convinced that belief has ever been the main issue.

When the news broke about Harvey Weinstein, my first thought was – of course this was happening, and of course people knew.  The reason he didn’t fall sooner wasn’t because no one talked, or because the ones who didn’t weren’t believed– it was because people weren’t sure that these women’s experiences mattered enough to upend the life and career of a powerful man.

Belief is just the beginning. The bigger issue is about whose life matters – enough, whose stories, whose suffering.

This was the pressing question behind Tarana Burke’s call to action in 2007.

She’d spent the prior decade listening to stories of sexual violence, especially among youth of color in low wealth communities, where they were too often left without sufficient resources, including adults who had the training, capacity or power to help.

Burke witnessed many young girls holding their story as if they were the only ones, and in their isolation, internalizing the blame, believing that there must be something uniquely wrong, or broken about them.

This, despite the fact that at least 60% of Black girls will experience sexual abuse by the time they are 18.

Burke believed that if they knew how many of their peers shared their story, they could release some of their internalized shame, and instead believe that their lives mattered enough, and that they were worthy of a better life – and, gain the strength and courage in community to fight for change.

From this impulse, Burke started the Me Too movement, and her organization, Just Be, long before hashtags or the full explosion of social media – and also, she was a Black woman working on sexual assault and not a white Hollywood actress….so it wasn’t until last fall when Alyssa Milano tweeted out the hashtag that the call really took off.

It is important though – and Milano has recognized this in her public speech since –that at the heart of this movement is the call to hear and empower the most marginalized voices, people of color, indigenous and undocumented people, transgender and other gender-non-conforming folks – to move these voices that have been the most silenced, but also who have an even greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence  – to the center, to flip the cultural script, and even more importantly, the balance of power.

Which is perhaps why we’re starting to hear about a #MeToo backlash.  When those who are accustomed to having their stories and their lives central to our social script are suddenly de-centered so that other stories can be heard and believed and acted upon – they often – we often experience this shift as loss. As the saying goes – “when you’re accustomed to privilege; equality feels like oppression.”

This brings us to the other critical theological question at stake in the #MeToo movement – which is how seriously we’re going to take our Universalist good news that we share the same destiny, that we are all in this together. How much do we mean it when we say, as Sean put it last week, that as one of us “walks the plank” of inherent worth, tied around our ankle is a chain that if one of us goes, would bring us all down.

Because if we mean it when we say that our liberation is a collective pursuit, then this re-centering act is about saving ourselves.  It’s about hearing ourselves, knowing ourselves, and ultimately healing ourselves. Believing that we are worthy of healing.   All of us, connected, together.

For this reason, I take no pleasure in the idea that my male colleagues may be wondering if they are the next ones to be called out, any more than any of us should enjoy the downfall of any of the powerful men we’ve seen fall in recent months, regardless of their often-despicable actions.

The increasingly-small and often toxic box of acceptable norms for masculinity, and the messaging that to be a man is to be dominant, angry, aggressive – all of this connected so deeply to the March that happened across the country yesterday – these messages and norms oppress us all – and deserve their own sermon.

This is still all us.

On the other hand, this same Universalist faith has from its beginning, rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  (Here’s your lesson for Holy Week.) Substitutionary Atonement is the idea that one innocent person’s sacrifice should stand in to make up for the sins of a bunch of others.

Which is to say – by our faith, we reject the idea that victims of assault and misconduct should remain silent and shamed in order to save the reputation, ego, or the employment of those who failed to take their humanity into consideration.

Instead, by our faith, we believe that each of us must be accountable for our own actions, our own harm, in order to restore the ties that bind each to all.

We misunderstand our Universalist tradition when we decide that “we all go together” requires an “anything goes ethic.”  It is because we all go together that we cannot settle for cheap grace, or a laissez faire neutrality that inevitably, as Elie Wiesel said it, helps the oppressor, but never the victim.

As my first foray into Unitarian Universalist congregational life showed me, we are not good at this idea of accountability, historically, as religious liberals. We want to believe that people are good – that we are good.  Anything that goes against this image, then, becomes hard, even impossible to accept, remember, the shadow.  We wouldn’t do something that would violate another, we are good people; we aren’t the sort that would commit sexual violence, assault, harassment, misconduct; we’re good people – nor would the people we know and love. They are good people.

This singular focus on human goodness leads often to a moral fuzziness, and an ethical toothlessness, as we start to imagine that because some things are a grey area, everything is a grey area.  As if just because some things are simple mistakes made by people with good intentions, every painful action must have been done inadvertently.  As if evil does not exist.

But our sometimes willful, sometimes not – ignorance about our own power, and our desire to be a good person does not negate the real harm we are capable of enacting.   Our inherent capacity to choose the good does not mean we always will, and evidence seems to indicate that as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, the line dividing good and evil does not run between human beings but through us.

It is possible, and even regular, to be a good person, and hurt someone, even terribly, even intentionally. It is possible that someone we love is lying to us, cheating us, manipulating us, abusing us.

People are complex, and none of us are reducible to either our most abhorrent or our most admirable qualities.

Nearly twenty years after I first discovered Unitarian Universalism, I’ve come to realize that built into those covenantal promises I found so revolutionary, is an acknowledgement that we’re not always going to perform perfectly – as Sean reminded us last week – we’re going to fall short, we’re going to break faith with one another, and with ourselves.  But the covenantal promise is that when this happens, we’ll acknowledge the harm, and seek to restore relationship.

If we are going to be that church that seeks, and speaks the truth in love, then we will need to keep growing our tolerance for truth-telling, and truth receiving, and, which I want to suggest needs to happen by re-introducing a practice of communal confession.

I know…

But restorative justice can’t happen without an acknowledgment of the harm done. Confession is the religious practice that helps us deal with our shadow, and doing it in community makes the chance that much greater that we can together find the light.

I would never wish that our country would elect a man who bragged about sexual assault, and I wouldn’t ever have wanted to confront sexual misconduct in our congregation in the way we did this past year.  And yet these same painful experiences may have stirred up in us, and in this moment, a new hunger, a renewed commitment – to be that church where we do this differently. Where we bring our real stories, our real wounds, our confessions, our confusions, and our regrets, and where we use these as guideposts to map the way forward.

On brave path we travel together, may we remind each other that although we are not always good, we are all always worthy of love, and healing – no exceptions.

May the liberating power of this courageous, universal love, flow in us, and inspire us, and propel us forward in to this liberating work – for us all.

MILCK-2017-cr-rachaelle-estroud-billboard-1548

Posted in Covenant, Justice, Sermons, Sexuality, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pass It On – on faith formation & mentorship

Teacher Parker Palmer calls the place where we begin muttering miserable, unrepeatable things at the radio, or at our social media feed – that place that many of us are way too familiar with these days – he calls it the “tragic gap.”

The tragic gap is the distance between “the hard realities around us, and what we know is possible, not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”

A lot of times I think of church as a place where we go to deal with the tragic gap.

We come together to try to gather up the strength and courage to live in the gap – to learn how resist the equally alluring pulls of denial and despair.  We come to stay awake,
in the mix of beauty and brokenness, and to gather up the strength, and the support
to do our part to make the gap just a little smaller.

But sometimes, church itself is the gap. It can be devastating when the distance shows up here in church because we so want this to be the exception.  We so want this – here – us – to have no gap.

But the church is ultimately, still, filled with humans, humans who are sometimes short-sighted, short-tempered, sometimes petty, often self-centered – humans.  And so there will be sometimes, a gap. Sometimes a big one.

I knew all of this the Sunday I was driving home from a long weekend of ministry –
it was my first solo ministry, but not my first experience in church. Church had broken my heart a few times before that – but this was my first time as a minister.

I was serving a congregation three hours from my home, so I would go and stay for three or four days at a time – we’d pack all the meetings and pastoral visits and classes and leadership training – oh, plus worship – all into just a few days. And then I’d go home, and come back two weeks later, and do it again.

On this particular trip, it was maybe 12 months into my time with them, so maybe they were trusting me more – but I heard more stories of grief, and anger than I had before.  It was overwhelming.  But, I could’ve handled that. What it did it, was the way all these folks, my beloved church members, were treating each other, and sometimes me – terribly –  passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive.

I had so much I wanted to offer, I was in my first year of ministry – I was bursting with ideas – and they just seemed so – afraid. Resistant.  The sacrifices my family was making so I could do this (my kids were young, and I was often away) – I wondered why. How does anyone, why does anyone do this – for whole lives. How could I do it – without becoming just sad, and cynical – without ending up muttering miserable unrepeatable things – all the time. I cried off and on the whole three hour drive home.

As I got closer to town, I realized I couldn’t actually go home yet. I needed instead, to make a phone call.

They were marked in my favorites, so it just took one button.

Hello? The Rev. Nancy Bowen answered, but it could’ve been as easily her husband, the Rev. Howell Lind.

Can I come over? I asked.

Howell was the interim minister here at Foothills from 2015-16, so some of you know him. And Nancy served as the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association for a little over a decade before she retired in 2016, so you may also know her.

Howell’s been a Unitarian Universalist minister for going on fifty years. And Nancy has been a minister for half that, but active as a lay leader for the whole of her life.

More importantly, for more than a decade now, they have been my teachers, my friends, and my mentors – and in that moment – I was absolutely clear that I had to see them.

We sat in their living room, there may have been scotch.  I didn’t tell them much about what had happened, it wasn’t necessary.  I only asked them, with all sincerity and earnestness – how they had kept going?  For all these years – surely they’d seen way worse than my few little days, felt way worse – but from what I could tell, they were only occasionally overly cynical or sad or, only occasionally muttered miserable unrepeatable things. So, what gave them the courage, I wondered, and the strength – what allowed them to keep alive that bright thread of hope?

Without hesitation, they both said – you.

By which they did not actually mean me. Not precisely. More, people like me, relationships like ours. Being able to mentor and support new ministers, they said – and to see the ways that these new ministers would – with their own passion and creativity,
become leaders themselves. It wasn’t just for the mentees benefit – it turned out – it was the thing that kept the fire alive in them.

They recalled a recent time when they were listening to new ministers preaching on evil. They said after hearing that, they realized, even now, we can keep going. Everything is ok. Which is funny – I know – evil – but they said they could see there that our story was in good hands – the fire, the light – it’s still going.

They told me then about their own mentors, the women and men who had asked more of them than they thought possible – who pushed them and challenged them – showed up for them, and invited them to truly join in. And to whom they felt responsible, for passing it on.

As they were talking, I understood suddenly exactly what it is we mean when we say that Unitarian Universalism is a Living Tradition.

We usually talk about it as if it is about knowledge – about truth continuing to be revealed – like truth is the living thing.

But in that moment I realized, actually, the fact that ours faith a Living Tradition means that our faith has been created, and recreated, sustained and supported not through some apostolic line passing down orthodoxy, nor through the policing of well-practiced rituals, but instead, this – all of this – this bright thread of hope that we sustain here,
that we embody here – has been made possible, and keeps being possible, by way of a great network of care – people who care about each other – a tender willingness of human beings, regular and flawed though we may be – receiving the blessing,
and then offering that same blessing to others – stoking the fire with their life, and passing it on.

In the fall of 2016, a small group of lay leaders, plus Eleanor VanDeusen our Director of Faith Formation – and Sean and I attended a workshop on the future of faith formation –
and, if that phrase doesn’t make sense to you, try out instead – “the future of how we’ll help people connect to, and even, feel responsible for the bright thread of hope.” (For short hand I’m going to say, “the future of faith formation,” but in your head you can say that.)

The workshop gave us many good insights that we’ve been working to implement, but the major take-away about faith formation still challenges me – because it’s pretty-radically different than how we’ve traditionally thought about our programs and the whole set-up of our congregation.

It turns out, that what truly forms people in faith – what makes people literally
change their lives because they feel so responsible for stoking the fire of hope –
has absolutely nothing to do with offering great classes, or reading the right books. It doesn’t even have that much to do with really good sermons, or beautiful music,
or with helping people serve – no matter how meaningful any of this might be.

These are all often good entry points. They can get people started, and stir things up, and bring comfort and challenge along the way.

But the real way that the story of hope remains alive – in any of us, and in a way that keeps it alive in the world – is exactly what I realized that day in Nancy and Howell’s living room. It happens because someone who already feels responsible for this (()) for this story, this faith forms a real relationship with someone who doesn’t yet, and then invests in them, and invites them to join in.  It happens through friends, that become mentors, that become partners – partners who pass it on.

Mentorship is an ancient practice – the word mentor itself is inspired by the character “Mentor” in Homer’s Odyssey, because – as I’m sure you’ll all remember, in the story, the goddess Athena takes on the appearance of Mentor in order to guide Telemachus in a time of difficulty.

Despite these ancient roots, the concept of mentorship only recently became a thing society talked about. Before the 1970s, most people hadn’t really heard or thought about mentoring – but by the 90s, finding a mentor was considered a critical part of the career-building process.

With that said, any mentorship that’s primarily serving a utilitarian purpose is not exactly mentorship – because mentoring isn’t about gaining access, or information, or even about skills – although those things may be a by-product.  Mentorship is about relationship – a relationship of accountability, and most of all a relationship grounded in love.

Mentorship is an investment in another’s personhood, and potential – so much so that there is always the hope that the mentee will move the story forward in ways the mentor couldn’t.  It is a relationship of mutual learning, and a process of exploration and discovery – passing the blessing on, and then receiving it right back – again, and again.

Sitting in the faith formation workshop together, the group of us started to wonder,
what would it mean if every elder in the church started to think of themselves as a mentor.  And by elder I don’t mean older aged – we have some youth I’d call elders, and some of you 80somethings are indeed novices.

Unlike last week when Sean surveyed about introverts – I’m not going to ask who among you thinks of themselves as elders – because I already know, not enough hands would go up.  So I’m just going to let you know up front, you’re wrong. Many of you are elders.
Many of you have things to teach, and to pass on. Most of you.

So we were sitting there with this vision, of how transformational it would be, if every person who was an elder – every person who had a sense of responsibility for this congregation, and faith –  a sense of commitment to this story of hope,
and our mission – if all of these folks were charged not with simply continuing their (your) discrete responsibilities within the church –  or even charged with finding someone who they could train on those discrete responsibilities – which is basically the bulk of our mentorship thus far – we ask people who’ve done a job for a while to find someone else and teach them how to do that job.

But instead, we started to imagine that these elders (you) were charged with creating the kinds of relationships with others – newer folks – where they would be inviting and challenging them – discovering and exploring with them – their emerging commitment to this story, this hope, and listening for what new story we might create together.  Because this is the way that this equally true story – of the ways people have lived and given their lives for love – keeps going.

So that all of us, as we receive this blessing, also simultaneously, start to feel an expectation, a responsibility – to pass it on.

In turn, we imagined that as folks arrive here seeking a sense of belonging, and meaning
we would help them find not only the program, or class they might like, or the service they can plug into – but more, the people they need to meet. The people who who might become the companions who will invest in their personhood, their becoming, who will, before too long, invite them to share in leadership.

The authors of the book Growing Young, call this vision of ongoing mentorship-based faith formation, “keychain leadership.” Because it advocates handing over the “keys” to the next generation of leaders – but not as in, empowerment by way of abandonment – like, here you go, good luck! But more, by way of accompaniment, and “walking alongside those who are just beginning, [sharing the lessons that have shaped us], even while we hand over access, influence, and responsibility.”

There is something counter-intuitive at the heart of this mentorship-based/key-chain leadership paradigm of faith formation – especially today in our overly-busy world. We don’t want to ask too much of anyone, or else we might scare them away. We try to make participation easy, simple, afraid that otherwise it will become just one more thing on the too-full-to-do-list. But what we are learning is that when we ground the invitation in relationship – place it in the context of ongoing support and care, and that investment in personhood – and in the bigger mission – the story of hope, the unleashing of courageous love – then people are eager to join in, and to be a part, and to pass it on.

I had the chance to spend some time with Victoria Safford last February – the author of our reading today she is the minister of a congregation a little bigger than ours, outside the twin cities, and I wish I could say she was one of my mentors. I have admired her ministry for some time.

Which is why I was surprised, when I finally got to talk to her in person, that when I asked her about her church, and what was on her mind – imagining she might have something inspirational to offer, a little gem – she said one word: vigilance.

Not compassion, or love, or justice – but vigilance.

We must be vigilant, she said. Our story is always at risk. Our bright thread of hope is always at risk.  We can’t take it for granted.

On a week like this, when the gap feels – so big – I know exactly what she means.

We need more partners – more partners who are more invested, more deeply,
more keepers of the story, more tenders of the flame, and more who know themselves as responsible to keep watch – to remain vigilant for hope.  So that together we might keep stoking this story of courageous love with our lives, and passing it on.

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