Sunday, August 5, 2012

#2 Down the Ages We Have Trod

Down the ages we have trod
Many paths in search of God,
Seeking ever to define
the Eternal and Divine.

Some have seen eternal good
pictured best in Parenthood,
and a Being throned above
ruling over us in love.

There are others who proclaim
God and Nature are the same,
and the present Godhead own
where Creation's laws are known.

There are eyes which best can see
God within humanity,
and God's countenance there trace
written in the human face.

Where compassion is most found
is for some the hallowed ground,
and these paths they upward plod
teaching us that love is God.

Though the true we can't perceive
this at least we must believe,
what we take most earnestly
is our living Deity.

Our true God we there shall find
in what claims our heart and mind,
and our hidden thoughts enshrine
that which for us is Divine.

~words: John Andrew Storey, 1935-1997
~music: Thomas Benjamin, 1940-, © 1992 Unitarian Universalist Association

Well, this is it isn't it? The BIG QUESTION... What is God?

I have been called to the religious for a VERY long time. I was baptized at the age of 7 at Central United Methodist Church in Lansing, MI. To this day I am not sure what prompted my mother to have me baptized. She didn't feel the need when I was born, but, within about a year of our family attending CUMC, mostly so that my brother Sean could play basketball in a regular league, there I was, kneeling before a baptismal font, having holy water dripped upon my head and wondering, even then what the point was.

I don't think I have ever thought of God as a kindly (or vengeful) old man sitting on his throne in the clouds watching over us, as I imagine is referred to in the second verse of this hymn. God was never that personal for me even at seven. I don't know that I ever had a picture in my head of "God" but I had my first experiences with spirituality in that church. I sang in the choir and I can vividly remember sitting in the choir loft listening with rapt attention to the voice of our minister Dr. Limon. He was funny and poignant, a masterful lecturer who kept my attention even as a child, through him I heard the voice of spirit. I was sad when he retired.

I spoke in my last post about having had what many would term a spiritual experience out in nature. So I understand the second verse. I have many friends and family members who find God in the arms of nature. I guess I see wonder there and beauty as well, but I am not sure I find the "divine" anywhere, even in the most beautiful spots I have been to.

The third verse of this hymn speak directly to my spirituality. I see "God" in the face(s) of humanity. I see it in the smile of a small child, I hear it in the singing of songs, I feel it in a crowd of like minded folks united for the same cause, I see God in all of us, in the collected "we". And, truthfully, I see both a merciful, loving God and a wrathful God of punishment. That may be what saddens me most, that we are our own salvation and yet we, the species, insist, still, on creating a world where 80% of the world's population lives on less than $10 a day and where the richest 20% of the population accounts for more than 2/3 of the worlds wealth. I am horrified that 1/6 of the world's population does not have access to clean drinking water. These are issue we can fix and yet we spend more than $70,000,000,000,000 (70 TRILLION) per year on "defense" spending and just over $15,000,000,000 (15 billion) on humanitarian aid. Humanity, it seems, is a cruel God.

As with those referenced in the fourth verse of the hymn, I also found spirit (again I'm not sure I would call it the "Divine") manifest on "hallowed ground". The worship space at the church I grew up in is a grand sanctuary. Designed by Elijah E Meyers, who also designed the state capitol building of Michigan (as well as the Texas state capitol, and the capitol building of Colorado) the sanctuary of CUMC sports majestic oak rafters holding up the 40 foot vaulted ceilings. Red carpeted runners lead from the back stairway entrance to the chancel, at the back of which sits the marble altar. Framing each side of the chancel are honeycombed grills through which the sound of the church's German-born pipe organ, updated in the early 80's while I was still attending, give out their glorious music. Stained glass windows rise from about four feet off the floor to the height of the ceiling - they must be 30 feet or more in height. CUMC is everything you would expect a church to look like and, indeed, it inspires. The candlelight services on Christmas Eve are still some of the most beautiful memories I have. Even without a congregation there the empty sanctuary cries out a call to God.

But "hallowed" ground has also meant places like the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. One of the most profound encounters I have ever had with Grace and Peace happened here. I had gone to DC on a work trip, only a few days in length. Knowing that this might be the only time I ever got the chance to visit our capitol, I decided to get out at least one day and see some of the monuments. I walked from my hotel to the national mall and saw the Washington Monument. From there I walked along the park past the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. While both are impressive, it wasn't until I walked back along the reflecting pool and took the turn out to walk along Constitution Ave that I really understood what a memorial could do.

Coming in along Constitution, you see the Wall immediately, but coming the way that I did, it sneaks up on you. All of a sudden you're presented with the massive edifice of the two gabbro slabs. Gradually it strikes you that there is something etched into the smooth greenish-black stone. At first you can't quite make it out. But, little by little, as though it takes your mind a moment to grasp the gravity of what you're viewing, you begin to notice the names, fifty-eight thousand names of the men and women lost to that tragic war.

And yet, once I had dealt with the momentousness of the sense of epic impotence I felt at seeing these names, I felt a profound sense of peace come over me. There loss can never be minimized, should never be forgotten, but they are given their moment in history, they are eulogized with moment and respect by that wall. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.

It is, I think, the last two verses of this hymn that I find most thought provoking. "This at least we must believe, what we take most earnestly is our living Deity. Our true God we there shall find in what claims our heart and mind..."

What is it we take most earnestly? Money? Power? Education? Television? Our Western, first-world, lives are filled with things that call us away from what philosophers have called our "spark of Divinity". This too then, is or should become a central focus of my spiritual practice: to focus on where it is that I find the "divine" (for lack of a better word), humanity. I think I need, I think we ALL need, to focus on that which binds us, one to another, to focus on reaching out to others to build bridges of love.

The Associate Minister of Music at VUU, Kellie Walker, introduced me to a wonderful, easy to sing, anthem of humanity. The words are:

I'm gonna lift my sister (brother, mother, father, etc.) up
She is not heavy
I'm gonna lift my sister up
She is not heavy
I'm gonna lift my sister up
She is not heavy

If I don't lift her up
If I don't lift her up
If I don't lift her up
I will fall down...

There, there is the crux of my religion in a single phrase...

Friday, August 3, 2012

#1 May Nothing Evil Cross This Door

May nothing evil cross this door,
and may ill fortune never pry
about these windows, may the roar
and rain go by.

By faith made strong, the rafters will
withstand the battling of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
will keep you warm

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms
into a shrine.

With laughter drown the raucous shout,
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.
~words: Louis Untermeyer, ©1923, 1951

This lovely tune is the first hymn in the UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (StLT). I think it is very fitting from a spiritual, or rather, a ritualism perspective that this is the first hymn. It invokes the circle if you will, asking the universe for guidance and protection for what is to come. It builds from that invocation to statements of intent describing the purpose of the gathering and the hoped for outcomes. A fine invocation and a fitting beginning to my journey through the Living Tradition. 

The first statement of intent is in the second verse: "by faith made strong, the rafters will..." Religion, at its best, calls us to live a life of deepening faith. We are called to strengthen faith's foundation so that through all the storms of life, though they may batter and shake our walls, the fire of our commitment will remain a living ember within our hearts that should "all the world grow chill" we remain warmed and can share that warmth with others through our love and our actions.

But, I have trouble with that word: "faith". As I have mentioned before, I consider myself a Humanist. I don't believe in a God per se, at least not a personal God. I believe that if there is a manifest God we are her. Whatever good that may happen in the world, or, for that matter, whatever evil, that others might ascribe to God happens at the hand of mankind. Thou are God - grok it. 

The idea of faith seems to me to be an invitation to turn off one's intellect and accept, without proof. That seems not only dangerous but perhaps even negligent. Accepting things on blind faith leads to things like the Salem witch trials, the ravages of the church in "frontier" nations, the Jamestown massacre and suicide bombings to name just a few.

So, although I do feel called to live a life of deepening faith, my faith is not in a higher power but instead rests on what I perceive to be an inherent "goodness" in humankind (perhaps I will tackle what I mean by "goodness" in a future post). I have faith that, when given the opportunity and barring hardships such as poverty and ignorance, the "goodness" will win out over the "evil" in our natures and in society at large. I find that the faith I need to depend upon is a faith in humanity, both individually and as a whole. I need faith that each day we recognize more and more our undeniable interconnectedness, and that some day, hopefully very soon, we will come to recognize as a species that we are all one and that "inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

I have not yet reached a place of faith in humanity so strong it can withstand the battering storms of life. I see lines of hate reaching around the block to a Chik-fil-A and I lose faith. I read stories of Olympic athletes tweeting racist messages and I lose faith. I hear stories of damaged individuals expressing their pain and illness in mass shootings and I lose faith. Daily, I lose faith. 

That is why I think it is so important for me, for everyone really, to build a spiritual practice. It is like building muscle memory. I hope that through this exercise I can grow a spiritual armor of sorts, to guard myself when I am confronted by bigotry, hatred and "evil" (again, perhaps I will tackle my ideas of "evil" in another post), so that, through practice, I am girded to withstand the battering.

The second statement of intent, in the third verse, speaks to what the Rev. Dr. Earl K Holt III, interim minister of my spiritual home Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, spoke of in the blessing with which he ended each of his services. The blessing included the phrase from Philippians: "the peace that passeth all understanding"... 

I have felt that peace only a few times in my life, a sense that all is right with the world and with me, a feeling of wholeness and simplicity so strong that I cannot mistake it. These are the times I've come closest to what others would call a spiritual experience. One example in particular comes to mind.

When I was young I was heavily involved in a Methodist church in my home town. During the summer of my 15th year, an older couple, leaders in the church, asked me if I would like to come with them on their annual camping trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was my first experience with real camping and is still one of my most treasured memories. During that trip we made the 10 mile hike along the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, a breath taking trail along cliffs above Lake Superior. 

At one point we came to the heights above Grand Portal Point and found it shrouded in a fog so thick that, to my adolescent and city-bred mind, it seemed as though we were walking through a cloud. We stopped there to eat our lunch before resuming the hike back to our camp ground. While we were eating, encased in white, the sounds of the surf below us and the raucous calls of gulls from a nearby rookery on the cliffs came to us, muted by the fog. For just a brief moment, I felt as though that was exactly where I was supposed to be. It seemed like all my life had been leading to that moment, there on those rocks, so that I could experience the beauty of nature in a way I was sure no one else ever had.

Perhaps that is another goal of maintaining a spiritual practice: finding the "peace that passeth all understanding". It may be that through that peace we can find the faith called out in the second verse.

The last verse seems to be a call to action of a sort. "With laughter drown the raucous shout". With laughter, with joy, we keep the wolves at bay. With laughter we can even "fake it 'til we make it". It often seems to me that we find joy not by looking for it but by being joyful, as strange as that sounds. 

I once gave a sermon about happiness called the Happiness Habit. In it I related a story about going in each day to a job I hated with a false smile plastered on my face and that, strangely, by the time I got to work that false smile had become real. I found through that silly, simple action of faking myself out a small measure of the happiness I was seeking found me. It may be that by greeting life with joy, joy finds us.

Perhaps I will never find a faith like that which others, usually Christians, claim to have. It may be that I will never find the "peace that passeth all understanding". But, as a dear friend who collects oddball quotes is fond of saying: "you should always reach for the stars, at least you won't end up with a handful of mud."

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

How do you get to "heaven"?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Of Hymns and Humanism

English: Happy human Humanist logo, white and ...
When forced to define them, I most often describe my religious beliefs as a Humanist.  In fact, my beliefs are somewhat more complicated that that simple label.  I am still in the process of finding my own truth, which is why I am so glad to have found Unitarian Universalism.  My faith tradition calls me to an active participation in the development of my ethics.

The third and fourth principles of our Unitarian Universalist covenant between congregations call respectively to affirm and promote "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations" and "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Unitarian Universalism isn't a faith where you can believe anything you want to as some people would have you think. Rather, it is a faith that requires you to constantly question what it is that you believe, to hold your truth up to the bright light of discernment and actively look for it's flaws. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that requires practice, spiritual practice. 

That is hard for someone who identifies as a non-theist. I don't meditate or pray. I don't write daily or even weekly but only as the mood strikes me. I would find it hard to identify any activity in my life that I would call a spiritual "practice". And yet, I find that I want one.

Since I found UUism I have felt called to deepen my exploration of my Humanist values in a spiritual context. To gain a greater understanding of how the inherent goodness I see in humankind can inform my worldview and help me to live a more fulfilling and connected life.

Music has always been a friend to me and I have felt most connected to what I would call the divine when I am singing, listening or playing music. So, I thought that might be a good place to start in developing a regular practice of thought, examination and introspection on how Humanist values inform my spiritual path.
Singing the Living Tradition (StLT) is the official hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Although there is no defining doctrine or creed that binds us, these songs, many derived from our Unitarian and Universalist Christian roots may come closest to being such a common prayer book. So, that is where I am going to start. 

I am committing to a minimum of a weekly post looking at the hymns within StLT. I hope that this will spur even more writing than a weekly post, but I will hold myself to at least a post a week. I hope that those reading this will enjoy the journey with me and will hold me accountable to my spiritual growth. 

Please feel free to comment, challenge, and in all other ways prod me to better articulate and define what it is that I hold to be true. I hope you can find some truth along the way yourself.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bumbling Our Way to Beauty

Sermon given at Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in Chandler, AZ, July 17, 2012

When I set out to write this piece I wasn't sure how it would turn out. I wasn't even sure exactly what it was I wanted to say. I wasn't sure of the structure, or the contents, or even the stories I wanted to include. In fact the only thing I did know was the title: Bumbling Our Way to Beauty. And so, I hope you’ll indulge me as I bumble my way through this. Perhaps, by the end, we’ll find a little beauty along the way.

The first time I remember hearing the term beloved community, was in a sermon during the Sunday service at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in Minneapolis, Minnesota in June of 2010. I was taken by the phrase, “beloved community.”  To me it evoked the very ideal of what a community of spirit and love could be, a community in which all are valued, all are worthy, all are recognized and all are loved. In other words, the kind of community we hope to model within Unitarian Universalist congregations and outward into the world beyond.

I was also taken by a kind of blind allegiance to the phrase itself. It seemed, at the time, as though the speaker took for granted that everyone he was talking to would immediately understand it, would know without any explanation, what he meant and would not have any of their own preconceived notions about the meaning of the phrase. It was almost jargon, or cult-speak.

I thought at the time that using the phrase in that way worked against the very idea of inclusion and recognized worth inherent in the beloved community. It was almost as though since everyone knew what the phrase implied, we could just move on, and anyone not already on that same page was just a little “less than”...

I retrospect I am sure I have heard the phrase beloved community before because in researching the term for this piece I found it over and over in the writings and speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even further back into early christian writings.

Those who've studied Dr. King of course recognized the phrase from his writings, and will surely know the goal of which he spoke: a just society of equals “where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and, moreover, a society built through Redemption and Reconciliation.

In an essay written in 1957 Dr. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that...”

He spoke about the beloved community again in an address given to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in 1957 entitled: The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma, saying:

“...the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Woven throughout Dr. King's writings when he speaks of the beloved community is a call to action, a call to create the beloved community. I don’t believe that Dr. King thought beloved community would simply manifest after enough speeches had been given or enough sit-ins had been staged, that after one last march on Washington America would rise up as a body and declare an end to hate. Nor do I think that Redemption and Reconciliation meant only with our enemies.

In his essay Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom, Dr. King said:

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

I believe Dr. King understood that creating a beloved community begins with ourselves. It begins first with accountability to others and ourselves. It begins by seeking first to focus on people through trust, engagement and empowerment. It begins by acknowledging that beloved community is not a destination, it's a journey of constant learning recognizing that even best intentions are sometimes hurtful and that when those hurts happen we need to return to King’s principles of reconciliation and redemption, that forgiveness is holy and so is asking for it.

I went to that General Assembly in 2010 full of what I thought were good reasons. In April of 2010, while my wife Carolina and I were attending the District Assembly of the Pacific Southwest District of the UUA, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. The next day the board of the PSWD made a motion to ask the UUA board to instruct the General Assembly planning committee to move General Assembly away from Phoenix in 2012. It seemed at the time, to both my wife and me, that the vote was taken in haste and without much room for debate. In fact, the only person to speak against the motion was Carolina. As many will know, the motion passed.

She and I talked about the vote the entire drive home from Santa Barbara to Phoenix. We felt that a boycott, two years out, would be meaningless, too late to matter and too small to be noticed. Wouldn't it be better to bring several thousand UUs to Phoenix instead and protest the law, to stand in solidarity with those most affected by the law? We thought so.

And so, we started a lobbying campaign. We lobbied our friends. We lobbied the board of our congregation. We lobbied the congregation itself. We lobbied on Facebook, and twitter, through blog posts and email. By the time of the General Assembly in Minneapolis, in June of 2010, we had, through the contributions of many people in our congregation, received a mandate in the form of a congregational resolution, buttons to hand out to anyone who would take them, and, for the first time in the congregations history, a full boat of delegates with a mission to keep the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix.

When we got to GA the lobbying started all over again. We left our hotel rooms each day in a block, matching t-shirts, pockets of buttons and talking points at the ready. We talked to anyone who would listen. We spoke in the mini-assemblies, and anywhere else we thought it would matter. We drafted a counter resolution asking the delegates at GA to instruct the planning committee to keep GA in Phoenix. And after a LOT of hard work and partnering we were able to be in the room and have an influence when a new compromise resolution was drafted.

In the end, we won. General Assembly 2012 would be held in Phoenix but it would be a new GA, a Justice GA. Instead of only one witness event during all of GA, as had often been the practice in the past, there would be many witness events throughout the week. Instead of a theme that guided GA programming there would be a focus, Justice, specifically around immigration and migrant communities.

We had given the UUA board and the planning committee their marching orders. They were to create something new, something transformative, something inclusive. But we didn’t tell them how to do it. And, as often happens in such cases there was a lot of stumbling and bumbling along the way. As UUA Moderator, Gini Courter, recently posted on her blog:

“Following GA 2010, months passed with little activity toward Justice GA. At the January 2011 UUA Board meeting held in Phoenix, Arizona, and at a pre-meeting border visit with our Tucson congregation, board members heard questions and concerns voiced by local clergy and lay leaders about the lack of Justice GA preparation. I cannot speak for the whole board, but I was personally uncomfortable with the answers our local leaders were given, and I did not have better answers.”

But in the end, come together it did.  The UUA chose several local organizations to work with including Todos Somos Arizona, Tonatierra and the Puente Movement, whose leader, Salvador Reza, had spoken at the closing of the Minneapolis convention asking UU’s to come and help them make a difference.

Several witness events were planned, including a mass protest outside the Maricopa County jail known as Tent City. And workshops were planned, some in conjunction with local movement leaders to highlight injustices in our immigration policies, and others to train in skills and tactics that those attending could take home to their own congregations so that Justice GA would not be a singular event that happened in the desert of Arizona, but a catalyst for change within UU congregations and the communities they serve all around the nation.

For many of the people who attended Justice GA it accomplished all its goals. It was something new, it was transformative, it was inclusive. For them this GA deepened their faith and called them to a new awareness and a stronger level of commitment. For many people Justice GA was a rousing success, a shining example of the beloved community made real.

We had won. But, hindsight being 20/20 and reflection being a part of my spiritual practice I have come to ask myself, at what cost. Did we keep the idea of beloved community foremost in our hearts along the way?

Accountability is, at all times a difficult tightrope to walk. Being in accountable relationship to others means including them in your process, even deferring to them as you strive to put them first, to trust them first, to engage and empower them. First. And so, I ask myself, in hindsight, how did we measure up on the accountability scale? 

Well, we can start with the District Assembly meeting that started this whole thing. In looking back I remember several people speaking about the resolution. All of them speaking for the idea of a boycott. There were people saying things like “we speak with our pocketbooks” and “the only thing those people understand is money”. Around 7-8 people spoke for the resolution, but only one of them was a person of color. She also spoke in favor of the boycott, but wanted some changes in the resolution to highlight that not only Latin@ people would be harmed by SB 1070 but that native people of the area, like her, would also potentially be harmed. A relatively minor change in wording that would have made her community more visible and would have validated her experience. In the end, with very little debate, her motion failed.

I think back to the debates leading up to GA that raged like a wildfire on Facebook and in blogs. Throughout, people of color told us that they wanted to boycott. In fact the largest organization for people of color within the UUA, the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministry (DRUUMM), the largest organization of Latin@ people,the Latin@ Unitarian Universalist Networking Association ( LUUNA), and their sister organization of white allies, Allies for Racial Equity (ARE) consistently told us that they wanted a boycott. It was with these groups that the final compromise resolution was crafted. How accountable were we to them?

Even at Justice GA itself, the UUA planning committee chose several organizations to partner with. But there are MANY voices in the migrant community, many more voices in the Latin@ community and many voices in allied organizations that never got a seat at the table. We could have invited them. Why didn't we? How accountable were we to them?

Move forward to the vigil at Tent City. Many UUs here in Phoenix and and around the country are unaware that some of the groups we had partnered with at protests from the passage of SB 1070 up to just a few weeks before Justice GA came to the protest in solidarity with the local UUs they had come to know and trust and were asked to leave, by representatives from Justice GA. How accountable were we to them? I can tell you they didn't see much accountability. It is only through some hastily called meetings and hand wringing and open, honest mea culpas that local UUs were able to stitch together some level of trust again with these groups. But there will be a lot of work in rebuilding those relationships still to come.

And what about Trust? In those Facebook posts and on the blogs we were continually told that many people of color would never feel safe in coming to Phoenix. They feared for their physical safety and their spiritual safety. I can only truly speak for myself here but I, and I think many others, thought these fears were not only not justified but were a smokescreen and a way of shutting down debate. How trusting is that? I am a white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, man. I cannot , EVER, claim to understand the experience of someone of color. I can sympathize, but I can’t empathize. I just can’t. I have never had to worry about driving while white or had to endure a stop and search. And, likely, I never will. This is a privilege that comes at no cost to me as a matter of course.

So, how can I, as an accountable ally, come to understand the position and experience of a person of color? I have to trust that the experiences they relate to me are their authentic experiences. That when they tell me that they have reason to fear for their physical or spiritual safety those feelings are built upon their truth. Anything else is dismissive and disempowering.

How well did we do at engagement? Well again going back to the early debates, I don’t remember asking, perhaps we did, but I don’t remember asking DRUMM, LUNNA or ARE, at any point prior to the Minneapolis GA, what, if anything, would make it possible for them to accept keeping GA 2012 in Phoenix. My recollection is that the only engaging we did with them prior to Minneapolis was engaging in debate, sometimes heated debate about why a boycott was a bad idea. In fact, even at the Minneapolis event itself, I don’t think we really engaged with them until Gini Courter, to her credit, realized that bringing competing resolutions to the floor of the plenary sessions would be harmful and that there really was a lot of common ground, forced both sides into a hotel room and told us to hash it out and come back with something we could both agree on. So, not so much with the engagement.

I could go on with many more examples of the missteps we made along the way to Justice GA. But my goal here is not to point fingers. It is not to say “shame on us”. In the end, I think Justice GA was a success. It did empower people. It did engage with the local community. It did transform what some have called in the past "a business meeting with singing", into something new, something bold and something that I hope will not be a unique event for our faith. It really is my hope that GA moving forward has been changed, for the better.

My goal is really to make the point that although the end might have been a success we can always do better. And that reflection, sincere, honest, soul-searching reflection is a necessary part of creating beloved community. And I am concerned, deeply concerned, that we Unitarian Universalists, more often than not, don’t take the time for that reflection.

When things “go right” or at least they seem to be a success we all too often rest on our laurels. We don’t take the time to ask ourselves what could we have done better. What questions could we have asked? Whose opinion should we have sought? Did we listen more than we talked? What more could we have done to engage with others and empower them?

My goal throughout this piece is to prompt that reflection within ourselves and within my own congregation and faith tradition particularly. I know, again from personal experience, that this can be and is an issue right here at home.

One example that leaps immediately to mind is our congregation's participation in the Phoenix Pride Parade this year. In the last three years we have gone from 85 people at our first showing at Pride to over 100 this year (although I might have to chalk that up to our new Minister, Andy Burnett, marching with us).

We also split the cost of a booth at the festival itself with the other valley congregations and had a UU presence there for the entire festival. I think we might have talked with two or three hundred people from around the valley. For many, if not most of them, it was their first experience with Unitarian Universalism. That was a good weekend.

Water is always an issue at an outdoor event in the Phoenix heat. So, to be sure there was enough water for everyone, on the Monday before the march I put a call out via email asking for donations of bottled water. This was a Monday following a Sunday service put on by our Green Sanctuary team where one of the things they talked about was how bad bottled water is for our environment. They talked about the Great Pacific Gyre, an island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific ocean that some scientist say may be twice the size of the continental United States, caused by our reliance on plastics. They asked us all to think about how we could reduce the use of plastics, specifically bottled water, on Sunday, and on Monday I put out a call for bottled water. All in all they were very nice about my misstep. They politely asked if some other means of getting water to the parade goers could be arranged and we found a way to do it.

But it made me think. Why had Green Sanctuary been an afterthought? Why had I not reached out to them early in the planning process to talk about environmental impact and how we could address that in the march? Why, for that matter, had I not reached out to the YRUU group, or to the choir, or to the social action committee and engaged them in the planning process? I can tell you they will be involved this year, at least if they want to be.

Pride was a rousing success. But even so, there were miscommunications, mistakes and perhaps even hurt feelings as a result. For that I am sorry. I can do better. We can always do better. But it’s only by asking the sometimes very hard questions about our process that we can improve it.

Beloved community begins first with accountability to others and ourselves, it begins by seeking first to focus on people through trust, engagement and empowerment, it begins by acknowledging that beloved community is not a destination, it's a journey of constant learning recognizing that even best intentions are sometimes hurtful and that when those hurts happen we must remember that reconciliation is about receiving forgiveness and redemption is about asking for it. These are holy aims.

I close with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his essay “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,”:

“...the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Namaste and Blessed Be

Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, January 2, 2012

Yesterday was the beginning of a new near, an opportunity to take a pause from the rush of our work-a-day lives and catch our breath, a time to reflect on the successes and failures of the passing year. Not so that we obsess on our shortcomings more to allow us to take stock of those areas in our lives that would benefit from greater attention. Our home lives, our work lives, our congregation life, our inner life - all of these are areas to which we "should" be devoting time and attention. Each can potentially be made better through a focused concentration and forethought on what it is we want from them.

I don’t pretend to be a marriage counselor or a life coach. But, I hope that as a Unitarian Universalist I can take seriously the third Unitarian Universalist Principle of “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. So, that’s what this essay/homily is all about: the tenets of my liberal faith as embodied in our seven Principles. For those of you who, like me, are new to Unitarian Universalism, unfamilliar with the Seven Principles, or, also like me, are getting a little long in the tooth and somewhat forgetful you can find the Seven Principles on the UUA website at

As a UU minister with whom I am a Facebook friend said in a recent post, the Principles are not a covenant of faith nor could they really be called a theology in and of themselves. The Principles are instead a set of guidelines, ideals of right relation to ourselves, our congregation and the world around us. And as Rob Smith and Dipak Panchal, the co-chairs of the Standing on the Side of Love team at Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation (, wrote in an article in the congregation's December 2011 newsletter, these Principles, all of them, are rife with contradiction or rather with paradox.

To quote that article in part: “it is in these very paradoxes that true power for growth and forward movement lie”. They go on with the example of the First Principle, our affirmation and promotion of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, saying that through this Principle “we are simultaneously asked to believe two things: that we are called toward unconditional love for others and, that we are to have that same unconditional love for ourselves.”

This is a difficult challenge, to love others as you love yourself... It seems to me I’ve heard that phrase before somewhere...

Many of us are really good at sharing and showing our love for others. Our partners, our children and our friends know beyond knowing that we love them. We’re able to show the love of others to the stranger on the bus, the waiter at the restaurant and even to those with whom we disagree but we’re not so good at the loving ourselves part. Self love sounds just a little too much like self important or self centered.

We give others of our time and effort but we pay little heed to taking the time to meet our own needs. Time enough to read that book, time enough to get some exercise, time enough to take that class we’ve always wanted to take, time enough for self reflection and spiritual practice, time enough for a walk in the park, or a hike on the mountain, or a run alongside the canal. As my favorite author put it in in the title of his seminal work, “Time Enough For Love”. Self love.

Perhaps, like me, you often spend too much time idle and leave the little things to build, one sock on the floor becomes a pile of clothes at the bedside, one day without skimming the pool becomes a weekend without skimming and the pool becomes a close approximation of leaf stew...this too is a form of denial of self, as contradictory as that seems. We really do feel better about our world and about ourselves when the environment we inhabit is well tended, and not seeing to that need is just another way to deny your love to yourself, at least, I think, it is for me.

Our second UU Principle calling us to justice, equity and compassion in human relations again presents us with a paradox, does “in human relations” mean when in direct relationship person to person, or does in mean in all relations? Plus there’s the whole “how-well-do-i-know-that person-and-how-well-do-I-like-them” dilemma. I know that I find it much easier to engage with compassion toward those with whom I agree than those with whom I passionately disagree. I think there’s a little bit of human nature in that, sadly. An example that comes to mind is the tragedy that recently befell the Duggar family.

For those who don’t know them, the Duggars have a reality show called “18 Kids And Counting” that airs on TLC. The Duggars have a deeply held religious belief in the sanctity of children. As Michelle, the mother, puts it: “saying there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers”. So strong is that belief that their family now numbers 19 children. To them every child born is a blessing from God and a testament to his Grace. Contraception, therefore, is blocking the will of God and something they will not use. Although I deeply disagree with them and there are a great many studies that show that the quickest way to eliminate poverty and suffering in the world is to give women control over their reproductive freedom, the Duggars hold childbirth and child rearing as a sacrament. So, imagine their grief when, in early December of 2011, Michelle miscarried their 20th child. Heart stricken and grieving the Duggars named their unborn daughter Jubilee Shalom Duggar and held a memorial service on December 14th.

In most cases the news reports were less than kind and online commentary from the public was brutal to say the least. Comments ranged from “having 19 children is criminal” to “what did they expect” to “this is God’s way of telling them to stop having children” and worse. Not all the comments were this heartless but most were.

I tell this story to emphasize that compassion for many people, I might even hazard most, depends both on proximity and on agreement. And that justice and equity are often built upon our own biases. That’s certainly been my struggle with this particular Principle in the past year and I imagine it will be my struggle in the coming year as well: understanding how my own biases and privilege as a white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class man influence what I consider justice and equity and finding compassion in my heart for everyone in the family of humankind both known to me and unknown.

Our third Principle: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, is as challenging as the first two. Is acceptance in this sense related solely to someone's spirituality? And what defines spiritual growth? I think this is especially difficult for a faith without creed or even a coherent and communal theology.

An atheist friend and I had a conversation recently in which I told him that a place like VUU might be just the thing for him, that there were, in fact, many people in our congregation and in UU congregations around the country who identify as non-theist or even atheist. In the study our search committee did last September fifty-nine percent of our congregation listed Humanism as their spiritual identity. That’s fairly consistent with UU congregations around the country. So, an atheist would likely feel quite comfortable in our company.

But not this particular atheist. For him, rationality is his “religion” (note: those are my words, not his). Faith in a higher power, or in anything outside the realm of direct human experience and unprovable through empirical evidence is giving one’s self over to irrationality which, in his mind, is unacceptable. His question to me was “isn’t one of your Principle’s an acceptance of another person’s spiritual path and an encouragement to their spiritual growth?” Of course I answered yes. “Well then”, he said, “that counts me out.” Not only would he have had a hard time “accepting” someone's desire to forgo rationality in favor of magical thinking but he couldn’t imagine encouraging such a thing.

Another UU friend of mine had a different take on it in a recent Facebook post. She said: “As a UU I know what I believe and can tell folks in 2 or 3 sentences. I can also tell folks succinctly what our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors believed. But when people ask me what UUs believe today I invariably end up hemming and hawing and rambling out something semi-academic and utterly uninspiring.”

Reverend Peter Boulatta, a UU minister in Minnesota, might have said it better in a post on his blog ( “...many thoughtful UUs (talk) about our creedless religion, our covenanted communities in which one is free to search for truth and meaning. It’s likely that thoughtful UUs (explain) being gathered around basic principles and values rather than beliefs and doctrines. But what (people hear is): We don’t believe anything. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along to suit ourselves.”

Now while that might be true for many, it doesn’t have to be. The UUA and VUU have a great set of tools to help congregants come into a deeper understanding of their own spiritual truth. One of those is a class called “Building Your Own Theology”. But that class is just a start, and we have ongoing work to do as individuals, in covenant together, to grow our spiritual armor and refine our own truths. UUism isn’t a blanket to believe anything you want without examination. In my mind it’s a framework to help guide you along a never ending road of self discovery and moral development.

I wonder if we do too little encouraging and too much accepting...

The fourth UU Principle says we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Free and Responsible. We have a right to a community of peers that won’t tell us what the One Real Truth is, and we expect that. But, with that right comes a responsibility to own the truth to which we come, to own the defense of that truth, to constantly test it, distill it, filter and refine it to ensure that it is in fact a real truth and not a convenient hat rack on which we hang our preconceptions. And, with that right also comes another responsibility, to hold each other accountable for taking that journey and finding that truth. After all, right there in the the covenant of our congregation, printed in our order of service every week, we say that the quest for truth is oursacrament...our sacrament...our sign of inner grace...our thing of sacred character.

A religion, any real or meaningful religion, should give us a frame of reference that informs our lives in a positive way, that helps us be better people, more loving people, more grounded people, kinder, more compassionate people. We owe it to each other to hold ourselves up to the light of discernment and to challenge others to hold themselves up to that same light.

If the other Principles are rife with paradox, the fifth UU Principle is a Gordian knot. To go back to the newsletter article from the SSL@VUU co-chairs "“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” ...includes both the importance of democracy and the right of conscience. The tension in that statement, between the value of individual thought and action and the value of group consensus, is similar to the tension between the value of talking and the value of listening. Both are important, but they stand in fundamental opposition. We cannot do both at the same time. Which should we do more?”

UUs believe, and rightly so, in the precept of congregational polity. Each congregation is a petri-dish of democracy in action but it’s a democracy where each person is encouraged to find their own personal truth. We are all acknowledged to have a right of conscience - we can abstain, absent, disagree, and in all other ways advocate our own position but at the end of the day we take a vote and majority rules. Even among our congregation's board and the UUA board in the end, we vote. And voting takes time... a LOT of time...

So, we’re called to take action in the world but constrained by the democratic process from moving quickly. We’re asked to come to agreement through polity but we come with our own truth. It’s a wonder that buildings stay standing and we somehow have services every Sunday!

Our sixth Principle leads us toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Well...we talked earlier about justice and its subjective nature. Here, in America, we call killing in the name of punishing killers "just". In Afghanistan they call caning a women who refused to marry her rapist just. In France they use a Napoleonic system of justice - guilty until proven Innocent.

I often wonder if my donations to Amnesty International or Amfar or the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will ever do more than move us just a little farther toward a peaceful world. Still, I’m optimistic in my cynicism. As Dr. King said: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. And so, I’ll continue to do my small part, to learn about the world so that it becomes a little smaller, to use my privilege to make the opportunities for others a little bigger and I’ll continue to hope that, together, our efforts bend the arc a little farther.

The last of our UU Principles says that we "affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". Affirm and Promote - I really worry that although we affirm this loudly, we promote it softly. I see the world we are creating when, every day, the food we eat and the goods we purchase are packaged for mass consumption and I worry about the coming-of-uppance humanity faces on the near and immediate horizon where sea levels and global temperatures rise while clean living spaces and arable land shrink. Are the small changes we make in our own lives: recycling, driving a hybrid, composting, reusing and re-purposing enough to change the tide? I’m not so sure. But I am sure there’s more that we can do.

So where is the paradox in this Principle? Where is the tension? Well, I’m still working on this one. Perhaps, I need to attend a few Green Sanctuary meetings...I’ll try to work that in to my schedule this year...

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles, or at least most of our Principles, are filled with paradox. But, such is everything in life. By facing that paradox we come away strengthened in our understanding and so the choices we make moving forward are better informed and hopefully better in affect.

I said at the outset that the New Year was a time of reflection and renewal. It’s a time where we examine the past and plan for the future. It’s a time when we pause and take stock, where we try, if only for a short time, to gain clarity. So, I leave you with a charge. Take time this month, perhaps even this week to think about your own truths, your own spiritual path, whatever that may be.

As you think about what you want from the coming year in your career, your relationships, your family life, think too about your growth in spirit. How will you grow your understanding and enrich your way of being in the world? And how will this new year be different for you on that spiritual sojourn? Perhaps, as I do, you can use the UU Principles as guideposts on the walk. And remember as you stumble along your path that even if you fall, you can always begin again. And you don't even have to wait for New Year's Day to do it!

I wish you light and love. Blessed Be.