“Beyond the Box” 10/22/2017

READING: from “A Core of Silence” by Jim Reilly

A core of silence breathes beyond all words,
or else the words have little worth; …
And half the music lies within the pause
between the arches of the heart;
the print upon the page means less than ink
unless the white and black both speak.

 
SERMON: “Beyond the Box”

Did you know that there is such a thing as a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant? I found one online, at a website called TheCatCoach.com, owned by Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. I didn’t look closely into her credentials, or how they are conferred. I did read her advice, though, about why cats like boxes.

She says it’s about safety and security. “All animals have different coping mechanisms,” she says. “This is a cat’s way of dealing with stress. If she’s feeling overwhelmed or in trouble, she can retreat to a safe, enclosed space where she can observe, but can’t be seen.” She suggests that if you’re adopting a new cat, bringing your cat to a new place, or leaving your cat for the day, you should set up a few boxes. “It’ll instantly give them controlled, secure hiding places where they feel protected and calm.”

This has been studied scientifically. (Did you doubt it?) A group of new shelter cats were randomly assigned to either receive a box or not. After just a few days, researchers reported that the cats that were given boxes recovered faster and adapted to their environment more quickly than the cats without boxes.

Another reason cats like boxes is warmth. A cat’s normal body temperature is between about 100 and 103 degrees, which means they’re most comfortable in surroundings between about 85 and 95 degrees. We usually keep our homes cooler than that, so cardboard boxes can act like a blanket or comforter, keeping their body heat close to them.

I think that safety and comfort are also the reasons we like to think and act inside the boxes of accustomed patterns: routines, habits, categories of thought. But like cats, we are also curious, and we like to explore and play. We like to discover new things. And for that, we need to come out of our boxes: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts. And that’s not easy.

There’s a family story I don’t often tell, about my Aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister. That generation has passed, so there’s little harm in telling it now, other than my own discomfort and embarrassment. The story is that we had gone out to dinner – me, my folks, and my Aunt, and maybe some others – and we were up in Iowa, at a restaurant out in the countryside somewhere, a steak place as I recall. We had finished dinner and we’re walking back to the car, out on the gravel parking lot. Amid comments about how much we’d enjoyed the food, my Aunt suddenly said, “Wasn’t that a well-dressed black family at the next table?” After a beat, she added: “And they were clean.”

The tone of her comment demonstrated that my Aunt was struggling against a stereotype she had learned. She was arguing against it, citing new evidence in her experience. All of us were too ashamed of her comment to reply. We were ashamed because we knew it was an unkind, unpleasant, and insulting stereotype. Perhaps some of us, like my Aunt, had been taught it and had believed it. I had not been taught that stereotype, but I had been taught that some people believed it. The norm in my family was that it was shameful to believe such a thing, and shameful to speak the stereotype out loud. My Aunt had violated that norm.

There’s a lot we could unpack in that story. In my family, we had taken a step away from white supremacy culture, denying our connection with it by rejecting its norms. But our new norms were merely the norms of denial and shame. I have since come to view this as the first stage of a grieving process about losing the “goodness” of being white, as my family gained and processed our awareness of white privilege.

You probably know about the stages of grief: first we deny, then we get angry, then we bargain, then we get depressed, then we accept. As a culture, since the end of the Second World War (in which my father served), I think we have come through denial, anger, and bargaining – most in our country are in one or another of those stages – and the leading edge of our cultural progress (the critical mass of leading opinion) now dwells in the realms of depression and acceptance. What is being called “white fragility” in the academy might better be viewed as a strategy to avoid depression. What is being called “woke” among activists is a way of naming acceptance.

What we saw in Charlottesville and see daily at the White House is not by any means white fragility. There we see the forms of denial and anger that resist even bargaining, let alone depression or acceptance. The popularity with that resistant minority of a “deal maker” who will undo all the “bad deals” can hardly be a coincidence.

When we focus on institutional or systemic oppression, we are talking about creating a supportive environment for all of us to move through the stages of grieving the loss of “American greatness” that is involved in our honest acceptance of the oppression and injustice that kind of “greatness” depended upon. There have long been two kinds of narratives competing to define “American greatness”: narratives in which individuals compete to succeed, and narratives in which communities cooperate to succeed. There is the hardy self-made entrepreneur seeking security through private wealth, and there are the trusting concerned neighbors seeking security through collective commitment. What did the entrepreneur have to do to get rich? How wide did the community draw its circle?

Individuals have been selfless and generous. Communities have extended their support more inclusively. And as they have, they have taken these achievements as tokens of identity, of “goodness” if not “greatness.” That’s what we do. There are such tokens right here in our church. The window behind me celebrates two members of this church who lived about 100 years ago: Jean and Kate Gordon. The Gordon sisters worked for what we now accept as great advances in our culture and society, equal rights for women and fair labor practices. They supported women’s education and work opportunities, and opposed child labor and other labor abuses. They also believed in the science of eugenics. When we acknowledge that fact, we might find ourselves hovering in the stages of bargaining or depression or acceptance of our own community’s identity, coming to terms with the inevitable imperfection of human “goodness.” Yes, the Gordons were eugenicists, but they were clean. As clean as we are, anyway.

There are other examples. The fact that our founding minister, the Rev. Theodore Clapp, preached a famous defense of slavery and owned a slave whom he made work in the church. There are the Schweitzer enamels, artwork by Pauli D’Orlando that hang in our library, and depict Albert Schweitzer using what we now recognize as the stereotype of a white savior rescuing Africans from barbarism. Upon a day, this stereotype was understood as a depiction of neighborly aid, charity, and “doing good.” Some of us remember Albert D’Orlando, and perhaps some of us knew Pauli, his first wife. Whether or not we knew her personally, she’s part of the family. It’s hard to think of her beautiful artwork as saying, “And Schweitzer was clean.”

So what are we to do?

Every so often a pane of stained glass cracks or breaks under the stress the window bears trying to retain its shape. The weight of liquid glass on soft lead causes the windows to sag and sink with time. The leading buckles. The glass cracks. And the time comes when the whole window needs to be taken out, taken apart, and rebuilt with new lead and some new glass. It’s a big project. It takes time. It’s costly. But it’s the only way the window has integrity and can stand again without sagging.

In medieval times it was believed that the stained glass filtered out all but divine light. During the Enlightenment – the seed time of Unitarian and Universalist faith in our country – clear windows came in vogue in churches. More light, more light! More recently we have returned to a desire for color and symbols. Our collective, cultural lenses for viewing the world are like that. When the window starts to buckle, we can choose the color and denseness and pattern of the replacement glass. We can take time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis and understanding. We can move toward new patterns: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts.

It’s not easy. But it is faithful.

May we take the time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis, and deeper understanding – of our own and of our collective patterns. May we move closer to patterns, routines, habits, and commitments that help us resist and undo the oppressions and injustices still encoded in our institutions and social systems. May we thus faithfully live in closer accord with love and justice. So may it be. Amen.

Advertisements
Standard

“The Spirituality of Money” 10/8/2017

One of the most hopeful and encouraging things I have seen recently was a video showing a group of Black Lives Matter activists who showed up at a pro-Trump rally at the Washington Monument, and were invited to take the stage and speak for two minutes. The gracious invitation was wrapped in Enlightenment rhetoric echoing Voltaire’s iconic remark: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And then Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, took the microphone. He spoke clearly and succinctly about what Black Lives Matter stands for. “We are not anti-cop,” he said, “we are anti-bad-cop.” He spoke about freedom, equity, and rights, garnering many affirming cheers from the pro-Trump crowd. And he closed his remarks saying, “If we really want to make America great, we do it together.” Again, the crowd cheered. The leader of the rally shook his hand.

This incident was not free of tension – far from it. The risk of the encounter falling apart or turning violent was real. But leaders of both groups held the space for peaceful interaction, calling upon those present to live the values of peaceful protest they espoused. And it worked.

At the Unitarian Universalist congregation I served as interim in Santa Barbara, California, we organized and hosted a forum about the wall Israel built between itself and Palestinian territories on the West Bank of the Jordan. The featured speaker was the Palestinian daughter-in-law of one of the church’s leaders and long-time members. We invited the community, and reached out intentionally to local pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups in town and on the UCSB campus. The speaker’s mother-in-law deftly facilitated discussion after her initial presentation and slide show. It got charged and sometimes heated, but remained peaceful and respectful thanks to the skilled facilitation. The role of Unitarian Universalists as bridge builders, able to call our neighbors into a space of respectful dialogue across profound differences, was never before my eyes so successfully fulfilled.

We should be able to fulfill that role often, in encounters large and small, planned and spontaneous, if we are living true to the faith we profess: that love should be our guide, justice our aim, and diversity our strength. There is more love and more truth to be revealed among us out of the grace of our differences and the faithfulness of our ways of relating to each other – the care we enact and the covenants we keep. That’s the particular gift of our tradition. Throughout our history, we have been a people building a new way.

Spirituality can be thought of as a state of readiness. To be spiritual is to have a cultivated inner resource of skill and strength to meet life as it is, come what may, without losing your love of neighbor and self, without losing hope, without losing your bearings as you live out your values grounded in love and working for justice. Your personal spiritual practices – how you start your day, how you tend yourself and your business, how you connect with others, how you reflect at the end of the day – should be having the effect of keeping you ready to meet life as it comes in a state of open-eyed and open-hearted love. None of us achieves a perfect performance, but we can all work to be and do the best we can. A person who lives that kind of commitment is spiritual.

The spiritual ambience of a church community is produced by its members’ readiness to meet each other as we are, to seek to understand one another deeply, to care for each other, and to commit to walk with one another in covenant to be our best selves and support one another’s spiritual growth.

And so I come to my subject this morning: the spirituality of money. The best financial counselors approach managing money as a discipline guided by the aspirations you have for your life. Who are you? What is the best self you are striving to be? What and who do you love? What difference do you want to make? The answers to such questions shape your financial strategy.

Also, a clear-eyed assessment of your resources and risks. When we talk about the church’s expectations of members, I always say there are four: come on Sunday as often as you can, volunteer to help with the church’s maintenance and ministries as you are able, make a financial contribution within your means, and work on your spiritual growth. As often as you can – as you are able – within your means – recognize the limits of your resources and of the risks you are willing and able to bear. Your involvement at church should support you, not drain you or put you at risk. The church’s mission is to support families – families of all descriptions and sizes, including families of one. Your household should be better for your connection to us.

Through good stewardship of your household, you build your way of turning making a living into making a life. You build a resource of financial strength to meet life as it is, come what may. Like spiritual practices, financial practices involve building certain skills, and should strengthen you to meet life’s financial dimension without losing your love of neighbor and self, without losing hope, without losing your bearings as you live out your values grounded in love and working for justice. Your household financial practices – how you budget, how you tend yourself and your business, how you meet obligations, how you reflect on your financial practices and habits – should be having the effect of keeping you ready to meet life as it comes in a state of open-eyed and open-hearted love. None of us achieves a perfect financial performance, but we can all work to be and do the best we can. A person who lives that kind of financial life has grasped the spirituality of money.

Just as the spiritual ambience of a church community is produced by its members’ readiness to meet each other as we are and support one another, so the financial life of the church is shaped by its members’ stewardship of their own households and readiness to support the church’s financial requirements. Just as we do in offering care and spiritual support, we aim to meet you where you are respecting your resources and skills, your need for confidentiality, and so on. The spiritual ambience of the church community, in matters of money or anything else, benefits from our collective capacity to meet life as it comes in a state of open-eyed and open-hearted love. Come what may, we strive to move forward together without losing our love of neighbor and self, without losing hope, without losing our bearings as we live out our values grounded in love and working together for justice, within and beyond these walls.

Traditionally, our churches have mainly relied on members’ annual pledges of financial support to fund their maintenance and ministries. Typically, pledges are supplemented by fundraising activities, such as our annual Christmas Tree Sale. First Church leaders have been working hard at building new ways of funding our ministries. In particular, we have looked at ways to make our assets earn for us. For the last few years we have staffed our building rental ministry to increase our capacity to earn rents and to serve community groups who have come to feel that our space is safe and sacred to them, too. We have begun to talk about how that reputational asset – that our neighbors see us as a place where justice work happens – can also bring us income in the form of gifts from neighbors who appreciate our role in New Orleans civic life. Beyond these ways of leveraging our assets, we are developing a program for planned giving that you have heard some about already last month, and will be hearing more.

In all of these new ways of getting income, there are opportunities for volunteer service. Chelsea Brauwn, our rental manager, only works part-time, and would gladly accept help from volunteers willing to help with logistical or planning tasks associated with building use and rentals. We could use a team of creative thinkers with some experience in approaching donors for large gifts, or in writing grant applications, to help us develop our ideas about gaining income from the larger community. And help with maintaining systems and records is always welcomed by the office and the Finance Team.

Come on Sunday as often as you can, volunteer to help with the church’s maintenance and ministries as you are able, make a financial contribution within your means, and work on your spiritual growth. Those are the church’s expectations of members. And this morning I am inviting you to work on your spiritual growth in relation to money. Because there is no aspect of life that does not have a spiritual dimension, no aspect that should not draw on a spiritual source for its balance and well-being.

Spirituality is a state of readiness, of skill and strength to meet life as it is, come what may, without losing your love of neighbor and self, without losing hope, without losing your bearings. Your personal spiritual practices – in every aspect of life – should be keeping you ready to greet life with open-eyed and open-hearted love. None of us achieves a perfect performance, but we can all work and help each other to be and do our best. A person who lives that kind of commitment is spiritual. A community that lives that kind of commitment is a church. May we be truly spiritual, and always ready to love. So may it be. Amen.

Standard

“Faith Is Being True” 8/20/2017

Prayer
Let us unite in the spirit of contemplation.
Following the prayer, we will enter into a time of silence
which you can use for meditation, reflection, or the prayers of your heart.
We’ll close the silence by singing together “Voice Still and Small.”

I lift up the 13 people killed and more than 100 injured Thursday in the car attack in Barcelona, and the woman killed Friday morning in another car attack in the town of Cambrils, about 30 miles down the Mediterranean coast. A public memorial service was held for them this morning at Barcelona’s beautiful Sagrada Familia church. We, too, hold them and their families in love and prayer. And we remember the family of the 7-year-old boy who at this hour is still missing after the Barcelona attack, and hold them in love and prayer. And we remember all those – some of us and our own neighbors among them – who live with the memory of such violence in their home communities. May all find healing and strength.

I invite you now to speak the names of those in our circles of family and friendship who are in special need of our prayers and ministries:

[WAIT]

Let us hold these beloveds in our hearts
as we contemplate the Spirit together:

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,

My colleague Gretchen Haley writes:
“These are the days
When the world seems covered in shadow
Darkness daring to eclipse the light
And we wonder if all the good we have longed for
Has been scattered to the wind
Like dust, or ash

But gathered here in a room such as this
We can only remember
That the seed grows in darkness,
And as the moon’s shadow will surely show
Most everything is a matter of perspective, and time…
Whatever way you find to peer
Into life
It still beckons
To be known,
To be seen as glorious
To be healed
By our witness
By our gratitude
By our praise.”

I was touched and grateful for Gretchen’s words
when I found them.
I reconnected with a sense of hope when I read them.
I remembered the many things I have found to do
to make a difference, if only by showing up.
Life, and we each, beckon to be known, healed, whole.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,

May we find comfort and courage from one another
in distressing and disturbing times.
May we connect with and create
hope and health in our lives.
May we find a thing to do that brings forth
more wholeness and justice in our world.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power, so may it be. Amen.

Let us enter into silence together.
[SILENCE]

Meditation Hymn ​#391 Voice Still and Small​

READING: “Inner Culture” & commentary by Nyogen Senzaki

Tatzu said to his monks:
“Brothers, it is better to dig inwardly one foot than to spread Dharma outwardly ten feet. Your inner culture of one inch is better than your preaching of ten inches.”
In order to balance and clarify this statement, [the monk] Tungshan said:
“I preach what I cannot meditate, and I meditate what I cannot preach.”
[And this is the Commentary:]… Before you study Tungshan’s saying, [“I preach what I cannot meditate, and I meditate what I cannot preach”] you must understand Tatzu’s thoroughly. [He] wishes to enlighten all sentient beings who suffer from their own ignorance. … [One who] repeats what he hears from others or reads in books … [i]n the Orient we call … a “three-inch scholar.” He reads or hears, then speaks; and the distance from the eyes to the mouth or the ears to the mouth is about three inches. Those who give lectures or write books on Buddhism with no attainment of inward light are working in vain.
A young Greek once asked his comrade on the battlefield what he would do with his unusually short sword. “I will advance one step quicker than the others,” came the reply. All he has in the world is that one sword; long or short, he must fight with it. [As] the warrior [has no second sword,] the Zen student has no second thought; therefore he preaches while he is meditating and meditates while he is preaching. To reach the state [where one preaches what one cannot meditate, and meditates what one cannot preach], one must walk step by step the path [of inner cultivation that] Tatzu taught.

Sermon​ “Faith Is Being True” The Reverend Paul Beedle ​​

It was Christmastime in 2003, I was serving as the Interim Associate Minister at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, California, and I had organized a group of carolers to go to sing outside members’ homes – elders, shut-ins, folks we knew would like that kind of visit. I had the help of a Pastoral Care Team who called all the families on our list to make sure they’d be home, figured out the route, and prepared a soup lunch after church so we could all gather and socialize a bit before quickly organizing our carpools and heading out on our Sunday afternoon singing tour. Caroling in southern California is great: you might want a sweater, but there’s no snow and no slop on the roads and the sun is shining! Or at least it was for us that year.

 
One of the people we visited was the mother of one of our middle-aged adult members. Margaret Holmes was in a nursing home. She had just turned 99. She was still as she listened to us – we weren’t sure she knew who we were. But we had to believe our singing did her some good. The familiarity of holiday songs, the marking of the season, the joy of singing together: something in this must have registered and brought some comfort.

 
That visit was my only contact with Margaret. A few months later, I was giving her eulogy at the church.

 
Her son Bob was someone I got to know pretty well during that church year. His wife, Mary, was President of the church Board that year. He was one of the facilitators in the small group ministry program we started that year, and he had a real gift for it. Also, Bob had participated in a worship service we did that year about adoption. We had some families with adopted children, and some of those parents spoke about their experiences; Bob’s contribution was to speak – grey-haired, respected leader as he was – about what it was like to be an adopted child. Many knew how devoted he was to visiting his mother at the nursing home, so his testimony was especially moving. When I met with Bob and Mary to plan the service, he lent me a book of his mother’s poems.

 
Those poems were a big part of her service – all the readings were Margaret’s poems. They conveyed as much about her as the memories that folks shared. One of my favorites is her poem, “Musician’s Song,” which I think sums up why she wrote poetry. It goes:

I will tend my olives and harvest my figs,
I will tune my lute and sing,
I will dance upon the pure white sand
and savor all I can
Of my own life and Earth’s fertility.

The first two lines of that poem, with the olives and figs and the lute, recall biblical imagery, but in the context of southern California – where people have olive and fig trees in their yards – it’s only the lute that clearly signals that connection. And the next line reasserts that context with the image of pure white sand. Southern California is a place where Earth’s fertility – helped by agricultural science – is abundantly clear. The sense that one’s own life, well cultivated, has equal potential for abundance, is palpable.

 
Margaret writes of tending, tuning, dancing, and savoring. She might be saying: “Your inner culture of one inch is better than your preaching of ten inches.” And I feel sure, from my own experience as a composer, that in her poetry, she was living out the saying: “I preach what I cannot meditate, and I meditate what I cannot preach.”

 
We meet powers beyond our own in our inner life. We encounter ourselves sometimes in surprising ways. Our own nature – human nature, the human condition, the “equipment” we have: body and senses, heart and mind, through which we experience and interpret and respond to life – our own nature surprises us from time to time. Our inner lives are a field of self-discovery, self-culture, self-discipline, self-acceptance, self-forgiveness.

 
Our inner lives are also a place where people we love live on in the ways they have touched and shaped us, in our memories, even in dreams and our imaginations. We sometimes think of what a departed loved one would have said or done in a situation we find ourselves in now. Grief counselor Alan Wolfelt speaks of grief as a transition in our relationship with a loved one who has died, from a relationship of presence to a relationship of memory. I find that an accurate description of my own experience, not only with those who have died, but with those who have been part of my life and have moved on in other ways. Old friends, old places I remember that in my life I have loved, some forever and not for better. Loving is sometimes fraught. Love is in some ways a force beyond our control, and in some ways a discipline, a commitment, something within our power to perform. We both suffer it the way we do the weather – emotions, I often think, are the weather of our inner lives – and practice it in disciplined ways.

 
Margaret Holmes wrote another poem she called “Child’s Prayer” – it goes:

When I was a child I used to pray
“Please keep me for another day
But if I die before I wake,
I place my soul within His palm.”
But now I’m grown,
I’m glad I’ve lived those other days,
For if I die before I wake
I know I’ll live in other ways.

One way she lives – even right here and now, touching your life though you’ve never met her – is through her poems. Her children and their memories are another way, and if you should meet them, you will meet Margaret again.

 
Faith is not belief, it is moving and being in the world in ways that are true to the values we affirm and strive to live by. Faith seeks understanding of how life shapes our values and values shape our lives. Faith is about making choices and commitments. It is about both finding truth, and being true. In common usage, the phrase “being true” conjures the thought of loyalty as something fixed and unchanging. But being loyal to faith and values involves both changing and not changing. We are unchanging in our commitment to live by the light of love, for example, and the more we live and learn, the more our understanding of what that means and what it looks like grows and changes. We are always finding out new truths about love – at least, truths new to us, new in our experience – and at the same time staying committed to living it out to our best understanding.

 
At another memorial service I did long ago, the family requested a hymn that has stayed with me over the years, called “I Would Be True.” I’ve often wished it was in our hymnal. In its first verse, the first part of each line names a virtue worth striving toward within the limits of our own power. The second part of each line names the thing beyond our power that makes it worth that striving. It goes:

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.

The second verse speaks more directly to the fact of our own human limits:

I would be friend of all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift.
I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift.

 

And the final verse expresses the unity in human diversity:

Who is so hurt I may not know his heartache?
Who sings for joy my heart may never share?
Who is so poor I may not feel his hunger?
Who in the world has passed beyond my care?
Who in the world has passed beyond my care?

 

I just love that hymn. Maybe we’ll all sing it some time.

Meanwhile, I hope that this sermon, together with last week’s, have given you a way to understand what I mean when I talk about faith and theology. Faith is a way of moving and being in the world that is true to the values we lift up each week in worship. Worship means “to shape worth” – it is a collective spiritual practice of affirming and exploring the values we, in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, are committed to. And theology is faith seeking understanding of what is true and what it means to be true.

This year I will offer classes for theological reflection in that spirit: one will be a fourth-Saturdays series called “Movies With the Minister” in which each month we will watch a movie together (I have selected the movies, and we’ll watch them here at church) and reflect on it theologically, looking for the truths in them and what they suggest about being true.

 

In a separate first-Tuesdays series – which will follow a covenant group format, so that means you have to register and commit to come – we’ll reflect theologically on the themes offered in the Soul Matters materials that we also use once a month in worship – those services where the title is a question like, “What does it mean to be a people of _________?”

 

My hope for the coming church year is that we’ll venture together more often into realms of reflection and discernment, slow down and go deeper together, and come to know each other more fully and fondly. If we can do that, we will touch lives profoundly when we show up for our neighbors as we are wont to do.

We will tend our olives and harvest our figs,
tune our lutes and sing,
dance upon the swampland mud
and savor all we can.

 

So may it be. Amen.

Standard

“Faith Is Finding Truth” 8/13/2017

Prayer
Let us unite in the spirit of contemplation.
Following the prayer, we will enter into a time of silence
which you can use for meditation, reflection, or the prayers of your heart.
We’ll close the silence by singing together “Voice Still and Small.”

I lift up those injured, and the woman and police helicopter crew who died, this weekend in Charlottesville. We hold them and their families in love and prayer.

I lift up the many political leaders who made appropriate statements condemning white supremacy, racism and hatred this weekend.

I also lift up with gratitude the names of UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and our friend on the UUA Southern Region staff, the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, who witnessed prominently in Charlottesville this weekend and thankfully were not harmed in the violence there.
IMG_1099

A lot of white supremacists showed up in Charlottesville, and it is significant that most came from out of state: overt white supremacists cannot muster a local crowd that size. Frightful as the scene was, it also contains that note of hope.

And their decline underscores the importance of dismantling the effects of a formerly dominant white supremacy culture on all of our public and private institutions. Working to introduce restorative, instead of merely punitive, justice into our law enforcement and judicial systems, is one piece of the work that we are called to do – because we are directly connected by the assault during our General Assembly to systems that, in our name as citizens and (vainly) in the name of justice, generate revenge instead of healing.

If you are available during the day on August 17th, I would invite you to join us at the Criminal Court at Tulane & Broad where we will respectfully show up for restorative justice.

I invite you now to speak the names of those in our circles of family and friendship who are in special need of our prayers and ministries:

[WAIT]

Let us hold these beloveds in our hearts
as we contemplate the Spirit together:

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,
A lot is coming at us these days.
Living nightmares for some of us.
For others, just the lid come off a pot long boiling.
Life feels intense more often and in more ways.
We take up work for change and reform
and wonder if the weight of inertia can be shifted.
We reach out to our neighbors
and wonder who we can trust.
We move our cars to – we hope – higher ground
and wonder what we can rely on.
We find ourselves in this state of wonder,
wondering where the strength of resolve
that we felt short months ago
has gone.
This is not the sense of wonder we sing of in our hymns.
Or is it?

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,
May this uncomfortable wonder remind us
of some important facets of the love we seek to be:
trust,
reliability,
active care.
May it inspire the wonder we sing about
when we see these capacities
in ourselves and each other.
May it renew our resolve to be, at least,
reliable, trustworthy, and actively caring
As we take manageable steps to work for the changes,
the reforms,
the renewals of life and love, justice and peace,
Bending the arc, channeling the currents,
reining in the machine, unleashing community,
being the change we want to see,
being as neighbors are supposed to be.
Deep breaths.
Morning walks.
Songs in our hearts.
Made strong again.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power,
so may it be. Amen.

Let us enter into silence together.
[SILENCE]

Meditation Hymn ​#391 Voice Still and Small​

READING: “A Million Objects” & commentary by Nyogen Senzaki

[The student] Yangshan asked [his teacher] Kweishan:
“If a million objects come to you, what do you do?”
Kweishan answered:
“A green article is not yellow. A long thing is not short.
Each object manages its own fate.
Why should I interfere with them?”
Yangshan paid homage with a bow.
[And this is the Commentary:]… If gladness and sorrow come at the same time, if pleasure and pain gather around [you], how should [you] manage them? If [you have] to judge loss and gain, liking and disliking at the same moment, what ought [you] really to do? …
If you search for an article in your desk … Each drawer contains something of importance, but if the article is not there, the other things have nothing to do with you at the moment. Would you leave all the drawers open, or empty them all on the floor?

Sermon​ “Faith is Finding Truth” 

I read an engaging confession by a journalist this week. She wrote about what she learned when she won a writing fellowship that sent her to live in Turkey for two years:

 
“In my first few months in Istanbul,” she says, “I lived a formless kind of existence, days dissolving into the nights. I had no office to go to, no job to keep, and I was 30 years old, an age at which people either choose to grow up or remain stuck in the exploratory, idle phase of late-late youth. Starting all over again in a foreign country – making friends, learning a new language, trying to find your way through a city – meant almost certainly choosing [to remain stuck]. I spent many nights out until the wee hours…”

 
She reflects that: “The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, upended my sense of the world and its possibilities. The same thing happened when I moved to New York after college, and a few years later when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.”

 
This journalist, Suzy Hansen, describes her formative years – the 1980s – in the community of Wall, New Jersey: “a town located by the Jersey Shore, two hours’ drive from New York. Much of it was a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin’ Donuts. There was no centre, no Main Street, as there was in most of the pleasant beach towns nearby, no tiny old movie theatre or architecture suggesting some sort of history or memory. Most of my friends’ parents were teachers, nurses, cops or electricians, except for the rare father who worked in ‘the City’, and a handful of Italian families who did less legal things. My parents were descendants of working-class Danish, Italian and Irish immigrants who had little memory of their European origins, and my extended family ran an inexpensive public golf course, where I worked as a hot-dog girl in the summers. The politics I heard about as a kid had to do with taxes and immigrants, and not much else. … We were all patriotic, but I can’t even conceive of what else we could have been, because our entire experience was domestic, interior, American. We went to church on Sundays, until church time was usurped by soccer games. I don’t remember a strong sense of civic engagement. Instead I had the feeling that people could take things from you if you didn’t stay vigilant. Our goals remained local: homecoming queen, state champs, a scholarship to Trenton State, barbecues in the backyard. The lone Asian kid in our class studied hard and went to Berkeley; the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.

 
“We did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before. There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries. … By the time I got to high school, I knew that communism had gone away, but never learned what communism had actually been (“bad” was enough). Religion, politics, race – they washed over me like troubled things that obviously meant something to someone somewhere, but that had no relationship to me, to Wall, to America. I certainly had no idea that most people in the world felt those connections deeply. History – America’s history, the world’s history – would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever. … I was lucky that I had a mother who nourished my early-onset book addiction, an older brother with mysteriously acquired progressive politics, and a father who spent his evenings studying obscure golf antiques, lost in the pleasures of the past. In these days of the 1%, I am nostalgic for Wall’s middle-class modesty and its sea-salt Jersey Shore air. But as a teenager, I knew that the only thing that could rescue me from the Wall of fear was a good college.”

 
The Wall of fear. At those words, I had to take a deep breath. “If a million objects come to you, what do you do?” Breathe.

 
Suzy Hansen’s experience in some ways paralleled and in some ways was radically different from mine. West St. Louis County in the 1970s was also a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin’ Donuts, with no center and no Main Street. My folks were both of German heritage, purebred on my Mom’s side and more muttlike on my Dad’s. “Beedle” is an English name, and somewhere about there is a vague Dutch connection that came to the fore when my parents lived in Holland for three years. We did have a dim sense of our European origins, possibly because my parents and grandparents experienced the downside of such consciousness during the World Wars, in which my father and grandfather fought for America. And in high school my German class had an exchange program that brought several German students to St. Louis and forged international relationships between the families involved. Because of that, and a high school choir trip to a competition in Mexico, and my folks’ period living in Holland, I had several opportunities to live for a few weeks at a time in other countries; later I ventured for three weeks on my own to visit a pen pal in Thailand. The experience I had of living abroad any longer than that I got vicariously through my parents and my older sister, who spent a year abroad in Spain in college.

 
We had a modest, midwestern sense of civic responsibility, loving our country without calling ourselves “patriots.” That word always seemed over the top to me. I didn’t have summer jobs, I had summer music camp and such things. We went to church on Sundays at a time when, where we were, Sunday morning soccer was unthinkable. Civic engagement, for us, was working as a Republican poll judge, which both my parents did. My earliest political memory is Nixon’s televised resignation speech, and I had a certain fondness for Jerry Ford, who reminded me in some ways of my college-football-seasoned Dad. And I can relate to Suzy Hansen’s sense that religion, politics, and race washed over her like troubled things that had no relationship to her or her communities.

 
She is only about ten years younger than me, and yet her school experience is unimaginable to me. Yes, we studied world maps, and had to memorize the names of the countries and their capitals! No phase-outs in the Midwest! At least not where we were. In the 1970s, communism and the Cold War were facts of life. In the bucolic middle-class suburbs where I grew up, my friends’ parents likely had corporate jobs, though I don’t remember the subject of our parents’ work lives arising much.

Moving from Cleveland, Ohio, to St. Louis the summer before I entered the 8th grade meant escaping the kind of ethnic consciousness and resentments Hansen describes in New Jersey. And there was as yet no worry for us about being vigilant about our possessions. The world was mostly Christian like us, but not only that, and while there were some neighborhoods (yes, notably the black ones) where we didn’t feel it was safe to go, in Cleveland we did go there, Mom and I, to deliver our church’s donations to the Garden Valley Neighborhood House. Had our St. Louis church had a similar ministry, I have no doubt we’d have been going up to Ferguson or Kinloch with gifts of suburban largesse.

 
I decidedly did not anticipate college as a rescue from a life of fear. But it was similarly eye-opening. For Suzy Hansen, it was about class: students from my economic bracket looking down on her and her hometown friends as “white trash.” She writes: “We were hurt, and surprised; white trash was something we said about other people at the Jersey Shore. My boyfriend from Wall accused me of going to Penn solely to find a boyfriend who drove a Ferrari, and the boys at Penn made fun of the Camaros we drove in high school. Class in America was not something we understood in any structural or intellectual way; class was a constellation of a million little materialistic cultural signifiers, and the insult, loss or acquisition of any of them could transform one’s future entirely.” For me it was about human diversity and expression. I lived in a dorm set aside for students with an interest (and not necessarily a major) in the arts. I came in daily domestic contact with peers of various faiths, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and artistic and intellectual interests and disciplines. For me, as for Hansen, it was a first step into a wider world.
In college, I resisted the yuppie go-getter ethos of the 1980s, remaining a child of the 1970s. But Hansen embraced the times in college, and claims: “I was a child of the 90s, the decade when, according to America’s foremost intellectuals,’history’ had ended, the US was triumphant, the cold war won by a landslide.” Had I embraced the 1980s, I doubt I’d be in ministry now. I was tempted to enter the banking world, and did after a fashion: I became a computer operator at a bank following my short and inglorious career in not-for-profit arts management, a 1970s profession if there ever was one. That career took me from the Midwest to New York, a hard experience of culture shock that, all things considered, I still think can compare with her two years in Turkey.

 

Among the strange things she encountered there was a widespread belief among Turks that the United States bombed itself on September 11th, 2001. She usually replied that if that were so, an American journalist would have found it out. Then came this exchange with a university student:
“I repeated my claim about believing in the integrity of American journalism. She replied, a bit sheepishly,’Well, right, we can’t trust our journalism. We can’t take that for granted.’
The words ‘take that for granted’ gave me pause. Having lived in Turkey for more than a year, witnessing how nationalistic propaganda had inspired people’s views of the world and of themselves, I wondered from where the belief in our objectivity and rigour in journalism came. Why would Americans be objective and everyone else subjective?”

 
“My learning process abroad was threefold:” she writes. “I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about America’s role in the world; and I was also slowly understanding my own psychology, temperament and prejudices. … How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.”

 
She muses: “For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.”

 
“Some years after I moved to Istanbul,” she says, “I bought a notebook, and … I wrote down … a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.”

 
I think that might be where I would have ended up had I gone into banking. (So 70s of me to put it that way!) In all of this cross-cultural learning – be it of class, section, nation or race, sexuality or gender or whatever else – we encounter social powers and powers of our psyches that are beyond our control. How to respond to powers beyond our own is a core concern of theology. One classic definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding” – this presupposes that faith finds truth that it needs to understand. And if we come to feel, like Suzy Hansen, that our personal or collective identity, or both, is a myth without meaning that leaves us not knowing who we are, then we are surely in a crisis of faith seeking a better, more helpful understanding. If we come to feel that we are infused with a self-delusion so complete that we cannot see where it begins and ends, cannot root it out, cannot destroy it, then we are in need of a kind of healing only faith can supply. And that means we need each other.

Another journalist, David Baron, writes about the experience of powers beyond our own in the cosmos:

 
“A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth — neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos. The sight, for many, is humbling and mystical. … The hypnotic effect appears to extend beyond humans. …. Firm hands tremble, eloquent tongues freeze, sharp minds grow addled. … A total eclipse obstructs not only the sun’s direct light, but its heat, which can cause an abrupt change in atmospheric conditions—sometimes turning a calm day unsettled; at other times, the opposite. … [In] precisely one saros—the eighteen-year period over which these astronomical conjunctions repeat themselves … [t]he cycle [ends] and then, like the seasons, [is] renewed. Eclipses, I find, connect the present with the past like few other natural events. For me, personally, they are life milestones. Each forces me to reflect on who I was the last time I gazed at the corona. For us, collectively — as a society, a nation, a civilization — they can have the same indelible, life-affirming effect. They afford a chance not only to grasp the majesty and power of nature, but to wonder at ourselves—who we are, and who we were when the same shadow long ago touched this finite orb in the boundless void.”

 
Baron muses: “The accumulation of scientific knowledge does not occur in a simple, linear fashion. Doctrines embraced in one generation are jettisoned the next. Seemingly productive avenues of research abruptly dead-end. Scientific discoveries and events acclaimed in their day fade into obscurity with the passage of time. … for such is the nature of scientific progress: less an organized march than a series of stumbles.”

 
So it is with faith and theology. How do we respond when a million things come to us? Breathe. And then:
Let’s stand together meeting eye to eye,
different creeds and cultures, praise diversity!
What we have in common we shall keep in mind.
And together we may grow in faith.
So may it be. Amen.

Standard

“Going Into the Music” 8/6/2017

Story for All Ages: “The Very Hungry Caterpiller” told by the Rev. Jane Mauldin

READING:​ “Do you ever go into the music” by Aileen Hohmann

Do you ever go into the music,
to the very center, become
what it is?
Everything is very real
very important, as if
the eyes of dead painters
could for these moments
see again through your
eyes. Mondrian lines
appear, Carot colors
Rubens fleshness, Monet
pinkness.
Music is liquid painting,
is sculpture to be shaped
by your hands, music
speaks words and you
can understand and
you listen fascinated
by the words. /
Do you ever go
into the music?
No one ever talks
about it.
Do you ever go into
the center and become
what it is?

 

REFLECTION: “Going Into the Music”

Speaking of caterpillars, once upon a time I had an earworm. You know what an earworm is, don’t you? A tune that just won’t go out of your head? This one was a particularly empty one: the Farmers Insurance Company jingle. You know that one?

We are Farmers. Dum-da-dum-dum Dum-dum-dum.

Well, it really got stuck in my brain, and stayed a long while. So when I had a little time, I went to my computer and wrote this:

[hold iPad up to the mic to play the opening of the piece]

Scherzo from String Quartet #30

[The music continues playing while I speak:]

Why would I do such a thing?
When I was newly ordained, and still in the probationary period called Preliminary Fellowship, I had a mentor – that’s part of the process, you find a minister in Final Fellowship to consult monthly as a mentor. My mentor was the Rev. Dennis Daniel.

When I was installed in my first settled ministry in Riverside, California, I asked Dennis to come and give the Charge to the Minister. By this time he knew me well, and I knew that in giving the charge he would have a chance to distill his insights into memorable and profitable advice. And he did. But also on that occasion, Dennis gave me a gift: this beautiful polished geode.

IMG_1098

Now, you know what a geode is, right?
It’s a cavity in a rock underground that collects mineral or crystal deposits that fill up the empty space. Depending on the mineral, it can be any number of colors. The Museum of Natural Science in Houston has a stunning permanent exhibit of these, worth a visit if you find yourself in Houston. And polished up like this one, you can see how beautiful they can be.

When Dennis gave me this geode, he told me it was a symbol of spiritual growth and healing: the empty places get filled up with beauty.

That’s why we tell stories, at memorial services or any other time. A mere account of events is empty; a story finds the meaning and the beauty and polishes it up so that what is best in our experience can shine and be remembered, and give us peace in the present.

I began to sing and play and study music at an early age. I had a year of music theory lessons when I was five. I began to study the ‘cello in elementary school. I sang in church and school choirs through high school. I formed a string quartet in college, and later taught myself to play the recorder. Most of us are introduced to stories that way: we hear them and learn something about how they’re put together from little on. And gradually through exploration we gain some skill in telling our own stories, stories we make out of the account of events that our memories retain, stories we polish up and remember, that give us peace and healing.

For me, that’s what it means to go into the music. Whether I go in by singing or by playing or by writing, I am entering a space filled up with the beauty of sound and poetry. That space is a kind of sanctuary – it has been consecrated by a musical artist, to fill a space of time with a spirit of beauty and meaning. And when I come away from it, the beauty of that space stays with me. I always hope that something like that goes on for all of us when we come and go from worship on Sunday.

The added benefit of getting that Farmers earworm out of my system was that now, when that commercial comes up on TV, I hear that jingle and think of the beauty I made with it. And it doesn’t get stuck any more. In its place is this reminder, to take the empty things of life and fill them up with beauty.

[hold iPad up to the mic through the end of the piece]

Standard

“Paradise” 7/30/2017

READING: from Saving Paradise by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock

It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? …
Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. … How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. …
We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred.
In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus.
We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) “He is not here.” (Mark 16:6) He most certainly was not.

 

Sermon​ “Paradise” ​​

I think I have told you before about a memorable experience I had years ago as a chaplain-in-training. I was anxious about visiting strangers in hospital rooms – it felt a bit like making cold calls, no guarantee how they would receive me – and I used to retreat to the hospital chapel every so often to center myself before making more visits. The chapel had an image of Jesus up front behind the altar, which I had assumed was a crucifix: the dead Jesus I expected to see. On one of those occasions, after I had sat meditating for ten minutes or so, I got up to leave and actually looked at that image. It was the risen Christ, arms open in blessing. Not a crucifix at all. The shock of having my expectations interrupted and overturned made that moment significant for me. It is as if not only had I seen the image, but it had seen me, and given the blessing I was seeking. It sealed and reinforced the experience of centering that I needed.
The dead Jesus most certainly was not there.
The significance of the image that – once I looked – shattered my expectations is that it was always there, silently proclaiming its message of hope, silently resisting my expectations of it.

Many of our neighbors experience a mirror-image of this, in relation to our so-called “Confederate” monuments. Back when Lee was still atop his pedestal, I visited and examined the graffiti written on the stone base of the pillar. Some folks had written paragraphs, short disquisitions on the hurtful meaning of this symbol that still silently celebrated the segregation of American society and the establishment of Jim Crow laws, silently resisted the progress of civil rights and equity in that prominent and celebrated civic space of our city. Lee was so high above us that he was not easily seen, but the image there did not speak to the struggle that Lee and some of his brother generals made to accept military defeat and social change in the years after the Civil War. And, like my expectation of the crucifix, the expectation of some to see the Lost Cause there blinded them to how the Civil War generation made meaning of their shattered lives. Were they to look closely into the facts of Reconstruction, as I have – filling the gaps left by my schooling – they, too, would see the hurt that the pedestal scribes recorded.
For the Lost Cause most certainly never was.
The significance of the four monuments that have been removed – and of several more, particularly on the neutral ground of Jefferson Davis Parkway – is that they inscribe upon our civic landscape a myth constructed to undo guarantees of civil rights and equity that so many of our ancestors and countrymen died to establish and defend. Lee and his brother soldiers struggled with the contradictions of their cause. The builders of those monuments struggled bitterly against the memory of those soldiers’ nobler struggle.
It has been suggested that, rather than “homo sapiens” (“wise man”), human beings should be known as “homo narrons” (“storytelling man”). The habit of turning our memories and experiences into stories runs deep in us.

A mere account of events is empty; a story finds the meaning and the beauty, the best in our experience that can give us peace in the present as we move into an unknown future. And so we tell stories, and make images, and build monuments, to feel that we have our place in an ever-changing world, that we ourselves are rocks anchored in the stream of life. We fear, often, to embrace the deeper truth that the stream of life is within us, that we are ourselves ever-changing rivers, and that ultimately – to keep up with us and our needs in the place we find ourselves – our stories also must flow through time, a recognizable current in the shifting landscape of human experience. A story told once upon a time will only make sense if its hearers can understand the landscape that shaped it. Either its symbols still speak intelligibly, or its hearers have sufficiently done their homework.
And this we know from experience: it’s hard to get that homework done when the lessons haven’t been taught us.
This is why movements to remove some monuments and to refurbish or establish others is vital to the life of any city. In our civic spaces, we tell our story to ourselves and to our visitors. Like our annual Jazz Funeral for the Old Year, it’s part of what it means to welcome strangers as friends. What I mean is: Jazz Funerals don’t happen anywhere else. Ever since 1833, we have had folks who “aren’t from here” attending and joining our New Orleans churches. So once a year we take the time to learn about and explore a tradition that is of this place, of this city. If you’re from here, you know that this is how we do things. If you’re not, we want you to know, so you’ll understand us better.
And that’s what civic space is supposed to be about.
Storytelling – in all its media: ritual, symbol, and narrative – runs deep in us. It’s how we greet strangers as friends, and how we tell them and ourselves the truth about us.
We have an opportunity this afternoon to experience a ritual of renewal of civic space, during the Congo Square Sacred Marketplace, from noon until 6pm today. The marketplace features food vendors, children’s activities, health screenings, drum and dance workshops, tours of the Sculpture Garden in Armstrong Park, and music and dance performances. And at 3pm today, the City of New Orleans Park and Parkways department will unveil a restored Congo Square historic marker as a special event. If you’re able, I encourage you to go and experience the marketplace in this frame of civic storytelling. This is how civic space is supposed to work.

Rebecca Parker and Rita Brock discovered in their journey through the world of early Christian art that images of rescue from danger, of blessing, and of healing were the most common themes before the tenth century. Also, depictions of paradise. But this was not a paradise of life-after-death. It was a paradise of here-and-now. The word “paradise” came into the Hebrew and Greek languages, and ultimately into our own, from a Persian word that meant “a walled garden.” It implied cultivation during life-before-death. Maybe God has a perfect garden in Heaven, or had the perfect garden in Eden long ago; either way, “paradise” was a symbol of the possibility of cultivating at least a pretty-good garden together, now, right where we are. It was a symbol of a good and just society that can be, if we build it and maintain it. Cultivating whole selves and a just society. Spiritual practice. Moral purpose. Justice and peace.
The symbols that worked for the early church, expressing its resistance to the violent abuses of empire, held on as long as the Church formed during Roman times still functioned within a classically-rooted Graeco-Roman culture, but they lost their power with the rise of the Empire of Charlemagne. That new power center, rooted in a different cultural heritage, produced artists who favored depictions of the dead Jesus. Human suffering replaced human labor as the path to paradise. And paradise grew ever more remote.

How we tell our collective story – the many stories of which the collective is composed – guides our imagination of what can be, and shapes our descendants’ hopes of building a just society, of cultivating a garden bearing fruit in human wholeness and peace. It’s important work for neighbors to do together. It can connect us to our noblest ideals, our highest resolve, and our best selves. And it can make a difference in our ability to produce just and peaceful outcomes in civic affairs for all our neighbors.
Hope to see you today in Congo Square! Amen.

 

Standard

“Showing Up” 7/16/2017

In early May I took a train ride from Washington DC to San Francisco. My best friend Constance, whom many of you have met, likes to travel to celebrate her birthday, and she invited me to go along. Another friend and her husband joined us. We took Amtrak’s Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago, and the California Zephyr the rest of the way. We saw lots of beautiful scenery – but not every minute of the trip. And so, for example, on the plains there was ample time for Constance to introduce me to a game app called “Letter Soup.” We’d sit at a table in the observation car, and two or three of us would play it together. It reminded me of how, when I was growing up, my sister and I would sit with my Dad working crosswords or other puzzles in the newspaper. It was a nice way to pass time between the spectacles of the landscape.

Of course, I got hooked. “Letter Soup” is the kind of game that eats up as much time as you give it. It does always pick up where you left off, so you never need fear to put it down. You don’t lose anything by having a little self-discipline. But I let myself get absorbed in it, and I unexpectedly learned something from that experience.

“Letter Soup” is like that newspaper puzzle called “Jumble.” You get 6 or 7 letters arranged in a circle – like letters in a bowl of alphabet soup – and you get a series of 3-to-6-letter boxes to fill in. The words you make with those letters come, of course, from what you already know, and after a while the game has taught you a few words it knows. I learned that the words I know are part of a view of the world that I have learned over a lifetime – some taught to me in childhood, some learned and cultivated in school or life experiences. I learned that when I’m stuck finding another 3-letter word to make out of those 6 or 7 letters in the soup bowl, having already made a dozen or more – how many can there be? – the most annoying thing about “Letter Soup” is when it wants certain foreign words, like “hombre” or “mas,” or worse, when it wants something that I don’t recognize as a word at all. Then, something in me rises up to say: “that’s wrong!” or “that’s not fair!”

And I think this sort of thing happens a lot among people, when it’s not a dumb computer program but each other that we disagree with. When you say or do something, or create or cook something, that doesn’t fit my expectations, my habits, my worldview, my sense of what’s fair or right, I can’t help feeling sometimes that what you have said or done has to be just a little bit “wrong.” We all have that in us, probably more than we think we do. And it often crops up when we’re feeling frustrated or urgent about something.

Another thing I learned on that train trip was about how we are – with our expectations, habits, worldviews, and sense of what’s right or fair, how we are affects how we show up for each other.

The train, you might know, has a coach section, and it has sleeper cars, and a dining car, and an observation car. Folks in coach travel much as we do on buses or planes, but the seats are bigger. If you travel coach, you have to pay for meals in the dining car, but if you’re in a sleeper your meals are included. Either way, you have access to the observation car, which has tables to sit at as well as seats that face the windows and swivel. The observation car is a commons. It is a fact of American life that too few people – especially the well-off – understand how to behave in a commons. You can’t reserve your seat in a common area. It’s shared space. That’s the idea of it. You can’t claim it for yourself, because there are more passengers than there are seats in the observation car, and everyone is entitled to use it. If nobody’s currently sitting there, it’s available to anyone. We share it.

Each sleeper car has an attendant to help you with supplies and to make up your bed. This is not just maid service, it’s engineering. In a roomette, like we had, there are two facing seats that both recline (if you have the muscle and know the tricks) to make a lower berth, and an upper berth folds down from the ceiling. We were very happy to have an expert open and close those beds for us!

The second train, from Chicago to San Francisco, was short-staffed for some reason. Our sleeper car attendant also was assigned to tend the coach section – sweeping, emptying trash, and cleaning bathrooms. She was working hard. And there was a bunch of teenagers in coach, so she had her hands full.

I liked her right away. I noticed some familiar cadences and expressions in her speech, and after a while I found a moment to ask her if she was from New Orleans. “No, but I married a New Orleanian and lived there a few years. I have family there.” “I ask because you talk like folks back home. You picked it up!”
“Yes, I did!” she laughed.
“Well, I just want you to know that hearing you talk makes me feel at home.”
Came the reply: “Thanks, dawlin’”

That wasn’t how everyone felt about her. Some in our sleeper car felt she wasn’t around enough, or didn’t like it when she said she had something else to do first but she’d be right back. One young fellow – a twenty- or thirty-something – had a particular need to vent about how she wasn’t “professional.” I was annoyed with him, trying not to show it, because he would each day stake out a four-seater table for himself in the observation car, and spend the day there staring at his computer. You know, every sleeper has a table in it, he didn’t have to take up the commons for that. But he clearly felt entitled. And to him, “professional” was a way of saying a person knew their place, that was clear from the rest of what he said.

Our attendant one afternoon found herself picking up jackets and sweaters from seats in the observation car, and made an announcement over the speaker system reminding folks that the observation car was a common area and you can’t save seats there. Her tone suggested she had had some sort of annoying interaction with those teenagers in coach. After that another regular in the observation car started calling her “Mom” behind her back.

Throughout all this, I couldn’t help but see another set of dynamics in the situation. Many passengers assumed an attitude of privilege, like the young man buried in his computer. Whether this was an attitude absorbed from our capitalist commercial culture – “the customer is always right” – or influenced by the fact that nearly all the employees on the train were people of color, while nearly all the passengers were white (at least those in the sleepers, dining and observation cars, where I was), or was a personal sense of entitlement, or some combination of these and maybe other factors, I can’t know. But the hierarchy in it was clear. The expectations around power, and who worked and who didn’t, or whose work was what, came through.

And what also came through was (at least) two underlying sets of cultural expectations, which could be distinguished by their differing expectations of the train employees: were they there to help, or to serve? A helper you can make friends with; a server must be distant, professional, only there to serve.

On reflection, I remembered the famous counsel of Fred Rodgers about what to do with your fears in a crisis or disaster: “look for the helpers,” he said. “Look for the helpers.” I think that might be good advice also in ordinary times. Look upon folks with a job to do as helpers. Look upon yourself that way, in your job. It will change your expectations and attitudes toward others.

This all points to some key questions for us, as we strive to be “the church that shows up”: When we show up, what do we bring? Do we bring spiritual vitality, a spirit of partnership and collaboration? And are we organized – inwardly as well as outwardly – to have the impact that will do the most good? What does all that look like?

Some of us have been exploring those questions in a challenging context: a ministry of witness for restorative justice toward the four young men who assaulted UUA staffers Tim Byrne and James Curran in the French Quarter during our General Assembly. Tim and James have expressed a willingness and desire to engage in a process of restorative justice with their attackers. So we are organizing to support that possibility. At the end of June, Rev. Jim and Rev. Deanna and Rev. Melanie and I along with some members of our Greater New Orleans UU congregations – Jolanda Walter and Leslie Runnels and Kathleen North from our church, and Patricia Stout from North Shore UU Society – attended the bail hearing for the four young men, bringing with us copies of UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray’s pastoral letter calling for a restorative justice approach to their case – embracing the full humanity of all parties, that’s what restorative justice aims for – and introduced ourselves to the defense attorneys and state’s attorney and some members of the defendants’ families who were present. We intend to keep following the case and helping prepare ground for restorative justice to happen.

That day, a Friday morning, we met outside the criminal court building at Tulane & Broad. We did not bring our cellphones or iPads because they are prohibited in court. We were there a total of about four hours. We had to wait for the courtroom doors to be opened for us. At the other end of the courtroom from the door where we entered is the connection between the courtroom and the jail. About 20 young people, all young adults, almost all black, all but one male, all wearing orange jumpers and chains, filed into two rows of benches behind a railing with a gate in it that communicates with the area where the judge and clerks and attorneys were at work. A guard stood at that gate. To one side, there was a booth like you use when visiting inmates at a prison – doors on each side led into closed booths divided by a glass panel. That was where attorneys could consult with their clients. Just past the booth, on our side, was a short hallway with a double door – the “airlock” between prison and freedom.

We sat on church pews – three rows of them are there for visitors and observers, the front row reserved for folks who were witnesses or attorneys’ assistants who were involved in the day’s business in court. Between the front pew and the work area of the court was what looked to me, for all the world, like a communion rail. How interesting, I thought: in the furniture, no separation of style between church and state. There’s a story there, I feel sure. I hope there’s a book, too.

It took four hours to hear the four young men’s bail hearings because two of them were handled early, the defendants and attorneys all being present, while in the third case the attorney was delayed in arriving, and in the fourth the prisoner was brought late to court. Several others of the twenty-or-so cases were heard in between. So we got a flavor of how court work runs and feels.

In our conversations with defense attorneys outside of court, we began to learn the stories of these four young men, which court procedure – at least when it comes to bail hearings – is not particularly interested in. That’s the stuff of restorative justice, those stories. That’s how we come to see the full humanity of the defendants. We hope to learn more, and to find creative and appropriate ways to help those stories, and a picture of these young men as our fully-human neighbors, become more and better known.

Also, a few of us – Rev. Jim and Jolanda Walter – spoke with journalists about why we were there.

I noticed an interesting – and unintended – symbol in that courtroom. On both sides of the “communion rail,” there were chandeliers with four or five glass globes. Those on our side had all the globes lit. On the other side – where the business of the court is conducted – every chandelier had some bulbs out. I read that as a symbol of how the tedious procedures of the court cause some of the inner light to go out in those conducting the court’s business. It wears on them. It would wear on me. Some of my light – my creativity, my willingness to be present and attentive to each case, to push back against the press of the volume of cases needing attention in order to give due attention to any of them – some of my light would go out if I were doing that job. And lives are at stake there – precious futures waste away in the jail and the courtroom and the prison.

I’m sure that, in that state, I would resent the presence of third parties whose purpose was to tell me how I should be doing my job. But also, in the better moments I hope I would have, I’d be grateful that anybody else cared about the job I was doing. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with them, maybe I would; either way, I’d be reminded of something larger than the procedures of the court, that the quest for justice is the big idea and common public concern I’m supposed to be serving. I wouldn’t necessarily invite those folks to dinner, but I’d feel better about the community I live in, knowing that here, neighbors care about neighbors.

Another possibility for a similar ministry is with Court Watch NOLA.
Court Watch NOLA was founded ten years ago, not long after the storm, to bring greater transparency and efficiency to our criminal courts. The founders were the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, Common Good, and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans. It began as a grassroots volunteer effort, with 15 volunteers, and now recruits, trains, and supports volunteers who observe and report on whether our judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and other public servants are doing their jobs professionally, transparently, and without wasting taxpayer resources.

Court Watch NOLA volunteers track hundreds of felony cases, a daily and visible presence in the courtroom that helps identify systemic problems while sending the message that our community cares about making the courts more accountable and just.

The program compiles the results of volunteers’ observations and publishes regular reports, is strictly nonpartisan, and does not make candidate endorsements. Its mission is to promote reform in the Orleans Parish criminal court system through civic engagement and courtroom observation – to act as an objective agent to institute best practices in criminal justice.

One reason I bring this program up, is that white people showing up can make a difference in outcomes. It’s a form of power the white folks among us have that we can use for good. And all you have to do is sit there, pay attention, and take notes. Most white folks come well-trained for that. And Court Watch NOLA will train you about what to watch for and note down.

When we show up, what do we bring? Do we bring spiritual vitality, a spirit of partnership and collaboration? And are we organized – inwardly as well as outwardly – to have the impact that will do the most good? What does all that look like?

These are also good questions to consider when we think about how we show up here at church: how are we organized – internally and externally – to have the impact of radical hospitality we aspire to? We recently updated our Safe Congregation Policy to address microaggressions and other impacts that are part of the dynamics of privilege and oppression we may unwittingly carry with us into our spiritual community and home. In the coming weeks the Board and I will be working on recruiting new members for the Committee on Ministry – the body that assists me and all our lay leadership to develop and follow best practices in the life of our church. The Committee will add consulting on the Safe Congregation Policy to its portfolio of leadership and institutional best practices that it keeps its eye on and helps us all with, to keep us at our best in our efforts to truly welcome, include, and show radical hospitality to all who gather here in faith.

In striving to realize our ideal of radical hospitality – hospitality at the root of who we are and what we do – it is not classism or racism or patriarchy or heterosexism, but ALL of these that we are up against. These are all just different forms of carving out privilege and imposing oppression, and if we can own the many ways that we carve out privilege and impose oppression – be they sexist or heteronormative or capitalist or class denying or white supremacist – and also learn to recognize the ways we have formed habits and built institutions that reinforce and reinscribe oppressive norms so that, not only have we absorbed them in childhood (and therefore formed emotional attachments to the “normalcy” of oppressive norms), but have and are reinforcing and reinscribing them on our children and grandchildren – if we can own up to and learn to recognize all that, then we’re in with a chance of making our social world one where we treat all our neighbors as whole people, as potential helpers rather than potential servers, as strangers who might be friends. This, friends, is the deepest and most basic set of skills we can cultivate if we really want to be “the church that shows up” for justice and peace, love and life.

May we strive in these ways to be that church. Amen.

Standard