Friday, October 16, 2020

What a Universalist Hero Looks like Now

This moment we are living right now will be in history books. This pandemic, this recession, this election, and the movement for Black Lives, you can just feel that the world is not going to be the same after we pass through this time.

This morning we've heard the story of John Murray's Universalist Miracle, we've heard the story of Olympia Brown's fight to claim a voice for women. But Universalism is not a story that ends in the past. Universalist heroes are not only found in our storybooks, they are making history right now.

© 2015 Nancy Pierce/UUA

The hero I want to lift up in our celebration of Universalism today is Elandria Williams. Elandria grew up in the Knoxville Tennessee UU church, in their Sunday school, in their youth group. Elandria came to her passion for social justice early and found support for that passion in E’s congregation and in our movement. Elandria experienced firsthand the ways in which our movement is not always welcoming to people of color, and yet E stayed, and worked to change our movement to embody our Universalist values. E was a founding member of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Organizing Collective, served on the UUA board for 6 years, and was the first UUA co-moderator. E came to that position at a time of great tumult and conflict in our organization when we needed bold new leaders to guide us into a more just future, to help us create the beloved community we dream of.

Elandria also was a change agent in the wider World. E worked as an educator at the Highlander center, “a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. [working] with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny.” E had gone to camp at the Highland Center as a young person, because a member of E's UU congregation was a founder of the center. E joined the education team at the Center and created experiences that brought youth and adults together across cultural difference. Elandria’s work supported and nurtured the growth of emerging organizers and leaders. Part of E's legacy lives on in those leaders who are shaping a more just world even now.”[i]

For the past 3 years Elandria was executive director of PeoplesHub, an online education center for “connecting and supporting people who are resisting, reimagining, and restoring our communities.” In their tribute to Elandria, the People’s Hub wrote:

“Elandria learned early on that as a Black, queer, disabled and chronically ill person, you have to carve spaces for yourself because the system will not. In carving out space, E brought others along with them, and made space for so many more to join in. Their life was a testament to the collective, to claiming space and creating space for Black, Southern, disabled, queer, elders, youth and more.”
Elandria died at the age of 41, E’s whole life having embodied our Universalist values. Hundreds of people gathered with Elandria's UU congregation in a virtual memorial, to honor E's warm heart and bold vision. The words of that video we just heard were Elandria’s, written for worship at E’s Tennessee Valley UU congregation. They speak the essence of modern Universalism- “All are worthy”. You can tell how deeply Elandria believed those words, because E lived them out again and again.

Today as we celebrate 250 years of American Universalism, let us commit ourselves to be like Thomas Potter, building a space to share the good news of God’s universal love. Let us be like John Murray, and keep sharing even when we are broken-hearted. Let us be like Olympia Brown, using our voice every day, ensuring everyone has a voice and a vote. Let us be like Elandria Williams, carving spaces for ourselves and others when the system will not, listening deeply across the lines of difference, supporting and nurturing emerging leaders, “Let us everyday live our [Universalist] values out loud”[ii]



Wednesday, September 23, 2020


When our church administrator Barbara George died, many years ago now, I was doing a pretty good job of holding it together right up until the moment I asked for my favorite breakfast muffin- the carrot ginger muffin- at the coffee shop counter, and they were totally out. The counter-person said, “I don’t think we make those anymore.” I requested my emergency backup muffin, and they were out of that too. The grief of losing Barbara, the stress of supporting the staff, keeping things running, planning a memorial I had been able to hold, but the loss of this muffin, somehow was too much. I returned to my car full of rage and grief and unable to face my day, I sat in the driver’s seat overwhelmed with emotion, and couldn’t bring myself to start the car and head to the church. Intellectually I knew these feelings were the wrong size for the loss of a muffin, but it seemed this muffin served some role of comfort and support I needed now. It was a load bearing muffin.

In late march, early April when we were all trying to adapt to the shelter at home directives, friend after friend posted the loss of a favorite food missing from the stores, of a favorite ritual with their child that was no longer possible, an electronic device which chose just this moment to break down, and every post started with some variation of “I know it’s wrong to get so upset over a muffin when there is so much true suffering just now, but…”

So many things are changing now, so many things in motion -- Things we didn’t even realize could change. We are doing without things we never imagined we’d have to do without. Take a moment now to think of things touchstones that have been lost this year in your own life...

Let’s acknowledge that losing those touchstones is hard. It’s destabilizing. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel at that loss.

May of us rapidly found new touchstones. A social distance hike with friends, phone calls or video chats with family. I find that sitting on my porch for a few minutes off and on throughout the day helps me feel connected to the wider world and the interconnected web of life. If you’ve developed some new touchstones, type those in the chat if you like. [pause]

Before my son went back to school, he was supposed to quarantine for a week. His bedroom was so tiny, it would have been cruel to ask him to shut himself in there for a week, so we all quarantined together. I worried whether we could make it 8 days without shopping, but we determined to fill up our fridge, and I reassured myself that could always order from that new local business that offers same day delivery of groceries. But just before the quarantine, our fridge died, we lost most of that food, and the only repair guy in town couldn’t come until after the quarantine had begun. I went to the website of the grocery delivery company and there was a new banner that they had closed their delivery service the previous day, as business had been too slow. I thought I had shored up my pandemic life, but everything I had counted on disappeared right when I needed it.

I had already committed to talk to you about touchstones today, about the loss of old touchstones and the creation of new ones, but of course any touchstone can be lost, that is what is making this time so difficult, not one loss, not one change, but one loss after another. The losses of Covid, the losses to our democracy, the storms, the fires, the economy.

What will endure all these changes? What will we hold on to?

The home I grew up in was bordered by a tiny stream in which my friends and I loved to play. On the other side of the creek was a big rock that stuck out like a shelf. Over the years as the bank eroded more and more of the rock was exposed until it was large enough to climb on. Recently I was back in my old neighborhood and saw that “big rock” was still there, now completely exposed and surrounded on both sides by water. Big enough for 2 small children to play on.

Sometimes in the rushing river of change, we feel like we are the soil, the silt washed away. Today I want to focus on what remains. What is the solid rock that is revealed by all this change? What is strong enough that it can split the creek in 2, can shape a river with its strength and solidity? Perhaps the word for that inner strength is integrity. When we hold onto our principles and values while wind, water and fire storm around us, that is integrity. Integrity is the act of holding onto a moral core, so that when the storms come there is a strength at our center which is not washed away.

Think about our Universalist fore-bearers who believed that no one was left out of God’s inclusive love -- that each and every person had inherent dignity and worth. Remember the Universalists who turned that core belief into action as part of the abolitionist movement, remember universalist congregations like our Cortland church who participated in the underground railroad. Consider UU churches today who act as sanctuary churches. Love, compassion for all persons -- these are the strong stones of universalism.

Think about our Unitarian fore-bearers who believed that reason and scientific truth must be part of religious integrity -- Fore-bearers like Joseph priestly, a chemist who discovered oxygen and carbonated water, who was also a founding minister of English Unitarianism. Even when he was driven from his home in England he held fast to his Unitarian principles. Science itself is constantly revealing new truths, and debunking or complexifying old findings. Our knowledge of chemistry has grown exponentially since Priestley’s time, and we now know some of his theories turned out to be wrong. Knowledge itself is changing, but an intention to know the truth, to test and retest, that can endure. The guidance of reason and the results of science are strong touchstones from our Unitarian tradition.

Take a moment now to consider- what principles, what values, what intentions are part of your own sense of personal integrity? What is it that we strengthen, that we cling to in the storm? 

I invite you now to take in your hand the touchstone you have brought with you to this service. Take a moment to feel its unique texture. Feel how it keeps its shape when you squeeze it, feel its weight as it rests in your hand. Bring to mind your intentions for what you want to strengthen in yourself, what will guide you through this tumultuous time. [pause] let this stone remind you of those things. You might keep this stone on a windowsill where you see it often or put it in your pocket. As you see it or feel it in the coming days, let it remind you of your inner strength and integrity, of those principles and intentions that will not be washed away, but by your strength and commitment, will cause the stream to change shape, to flow around the strength of those principles.

Nothing lasts forever, even the hardest rocks are shaped by the flow of water over time. There’s nothing wrong with being, like the soil, washed into new places and forms. But as we head into what is sure to be a tumultuous fall, in what continues to be a challenging year, remember your own inner strength- even when the bakery stops making your favorite muffin, your critical technology fails, or you cannot reach out and hug your dear friends and family, you have an inner strength that you can call on. Even when the fabric of society seems to erode, hold fast to those touchstones of truth, of compassion, hold fast to your integrity and let those shape the new world that is taking form around us even now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Tending our Fires

When on silent retreat, with no screen-time and no one to talk to, sitting by the fire became an important touchstone for me each evening, and I spent time most nights setting, tending, gazing at and thinking about fire.

This past winter on sabbatical I stayed at a new retreat center. When the sister who greeted me showed me around she made a special point to show me the common room and the fireplace and said she hoped we would light a fire during the retreat.

That night I as I looked into the fireplace, I noticed it had been totally set up for us- logs, kindling. All I had to do was light the corner of a piece of newspaper and the fire grew effortlessly. The retreat center was near empty this time of year, and no one joined me at the fire but taking time to light a fire for myself warmed and comforted my spirit.

The next night I came back and saw that the fire fairies did not come every day; things were as I had left them the night before and I was on my own.Fortunately there was a neat pile of wood, a basket of kindling, and a lighter.  I had a steep learning curve though; always before I had built fires in community. There was always a surplus of would be fire builders; everyone wanting to poke the logs, to add new logs. Now, alone and silent, there was no one around to help or give advice. The logs had trouble catching, and the fire often died back. I spent a lot of time futzing around with newspaper and kindling, rearranging things so that there was enough fuel to spark the larger logs, enough air to feed the fire. I saw time and time again that fire only spreads up, and that no matter how perfect your kindling is, if it is outside the path of the upward flames, it will not catch. Even once once the fire is burning strong, the parts of the logs outside that upward path of the flames will not be consumed, but by rotating a log to reveal that unused part to the flame an old log begins making its contribution to the fire again.

I thought about how my own spirit at that moment was like a fire burning low. I was encouraged to notice that a fire burning low does not necessarily need a new log, but maybe some kindling to get things going, maybe just some rearranging to bring the fuel where it is needed. So let’s pause for a moment to consider- where is your flame burning low? Where could you use a little kindling? What parts of your life do you want to bring closer to the center of the fire?

As I stared into the flames, I thought about you, my congregations; I thought about how folks had said they felt burnt out. Sure enough the logs in my fire did burn down over time. Tiny sticks would leap into dramatic flames, and disappear quickly. The big logs took a while to catch, but once the flames caught would burn for long enough that I could sit back and drink my tea, or read a few pages of my book, but even once the big logs are burning well, the fire still required care.

I thought about the ways that our congregations are really like a fire; they need little bits of fuel that burn hot, and they need big logs that feed the fire evenly for a long time. And if the fire were to continue, they needed new logs from time to time. Even the best laid fire needs help – they need someone to notice when the flames are burning low, when the logs are burning out,  to notice when they need new fuel,when they need to be rearranged. Sometimes we need to stir things up, making sure there is good air flow helps even when there is no more fuel to add.

As I gazed into the fire, it brought to mind a vision of our congregations that I’ve often shared: I imagine our congregations to be like a bonfire of love and hope, so that all who need to be feel the warmth of that love can come sit by our fire. These fires were burning long before we arrived, but because they have warmed us, we tend these fires of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, of our congregations so they may continue to warm all who need that love and inspiration decade after decade. We invite newcomers to our fire so that no one need feel cold and alone.

It occurs to me now that this fire for racial justice has been burning for a long time too- for hundreds of years, and sometimes it burns hot, and sometimes it’s just smoldering coals. Remember, fire is not an object, it is a PROCESS; in its fundamental nature, it is transformation. Fire changes what it touches, or it wouldn’t be fire. Right now the flames of transformation are burning hot. How can we keep the flames hot enough to make the transformation significant, and lasting? Take a moment to reflect- Which fires are you committed to sustaining and tending? Who is tending them? How might we invite others in?

When I went on my second silent retreat this winter, I used what I had learned, and built and started a fire that first night. How happy I was when someone walking through the hall stopped to enjoy the warmth with me. How happy I was to have made the fire that warmed and comforted someone. Over the following evenings, other folks would come and sit by the fire, enjoying the flames and the silence for a while before heading off to bed. They gave me an appreciative smile and I felt glad I had helped created this space of community and warmth for them. But I wondered, did they want to be part of the firemaking? Were they holding themselves back from adding a log, worried about overstepping? I couldn’t just ask, because we were all keeping silent. So one night when there were a couple of other folks gathered around, and I thought it might soon be time to either add another log, or to let the fire find its natural end for the night. I got up and walked to the kitchen to get some tea. When I got back another woman was adding logs and clearly had things under control, so I sat and enjoyed her handiwork for a while before going to bed.

Another night I seemed to be the last one left at the fireplace. I stopped adding logs as I grew tired. The fire was just an orange glow when I left to get my chamomile tea. As I walked back through the fireside room on my way to bed, I saw a quiet man had taken the opportunity to sweep away the ashes and rebuild a fire from the bottom up using those glowing logs.

Fires are not meant to burn forever. At some point we have to step away. It is only when the fire is out that we can sweep away the ashes and make space for something new. When we step away from tending a fire we can do so in a way that ensures that the folks who come after us can make their own fire: A pile of wood and kindling invitingly and safely nearby. A fire circle cleared of brush and ready for a fresh start. I Invite you to reflect now, are there fires you are ready to stop feeding? And if so, are there ways you can prepare the way for those who come after to take over when you step away?

I’ve never “banked” a fire myself, but people in novels do it all the time. Apparently if you protect the coals just right they will still be hot in the morning if you are going to need a fire to , say, cook your breakfast.

This summer our 3 congregations are taking a break from a lot of our normal programs. We will be visiting other congregations in worship and not creating our own worship on zoom until September. Today we take a moment to “bank” our fire, to protect those glowing coals that they will be ready to reignite in the fall

I’m hoping each of you this summer will have some time to sit by a fire. Think of us as you watch the flames flicker, think of us as you tend your fires.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

How Creativity Helps

This month we usually celebrate Pride with a rainbow of colors, with festivity and a profusion of sparkle and creativity. But just this week, on Tuesday the body of George Floyd was finally laid to rest. We have been observing a time of mourning for Mr. Floyd, for his family, for the black community, and for all those who have experienced police brutality. Protestors have been encouraged to wear black in solidarity with and respect for that mourning. It has been a pride month without sparkles and parades out of respect for the pandemic and for black life.
Jill Worthington- from a series during treatment

But even in this time of grief and anger, creativity has been life giving. Jill’s reflection on how coloring mandalas supported her during her cancer treatment is a clear demonstration of that. We Dance by the  Alvin Ailey dancers is a beautiful expression of how creativity helps us move through and make meaning during difficult times.

My teacher, Don Bisson, says creativity is an instinctive function; that everyone has that instinct whether they think of themselves as “creative” or not. Our natural drive for creativity helps us survive and thrive in new situations. We saw some beautiful and delightful examples of this at the beginning of our shelter at home- no bread in the store? Make your own. No yeast at the store? Make sourdough. I asked folks to tell us about how their families were being creative during this time. Judy Moore told me about making toilet paper tube finger puppets to Facetime with her grandson. Laura Rusk, from the Cortland congregation told us that “Back in April, the kids made puppets (unicorns of course) out of paper bags. Then they played with them by putting on a puppet show - we had put a tension rod in a doorway with a scarf draped over it for a makeshift theater. The play that they scripted was about how to get two warring kingdoms to get along and be kind to each other.” Our creativity helps us not only find practical solutions to novel situations, but helps us imagine a better world.

Here are the Facts You Requested live at Maritime Hall
My husband, a musician himself, theorized that independent music, independent low budget art is often more creative by necessity- when we don’t have all the latest and greatest gadgets, we must find new solutions use whatever is at hand. When I’m out at a protest, I can’t believe the creative profusion of masks- it seems like every mask is different- made from whatever people had at hand. As our counties start to reopen, I see so much creativity going into restructuring our society to allow for social distancing.
Right now many things in our lives are not quite what we are used to. While we long to put things back the way they used to be, more and more we can see that creating a new normal is not only necessary, but will also allow some vital change that we really need. We all must call forth our innate creativity to put together the pieces of our lives, of our society in a new way.

The creativity of the protests against police brutality expresses itself differently than rainbow creativity of Pride, unique for this moment in history: the big yellow letters on the streets of DC, the fence around the white house now decorated with protest art.

Protesters literally dancing in the streets in Oakland, peacefully holding the intersection of 14th and Broadway for more than 4 hours yelling out “one more song

When The Minneapolis City Council last Sunday announced plans to “disband its police department and invest in community-based public safety programs” they are calling for a profoundly creative act. That’s what we need right now- the creativity to re-imagine, to rebuild our communities into structures that are safe and life giving for everyone. There’s a program that’s been running for 30 years in Eugene, Ore. called the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS. This is a civilian team with a certified medic and a trained crisis worker. According to Tim Black, the program's operations coordinator, team members get extensive training and field experience on how to de-escalate situations, and bring folks struggling with mental illness into community-based treatment, not jail. Black says “we don't carry pepper spray. We don't carry a Taser or anything like that. You know, we just talk to folk. We proposed an opportunity to have one less police contact just because that person was having a bad day.” This idea is spreading to other cities around the country who want to re-imagine non-violent ways to take care of our communities. Sometimes the most creative acts don’t look fancy, they just look like common sense.

We don’t need to have special equipment or education to be creative, we already are; it’s in our DNA as humans. At this moment we need ALL that creativity to make something new out of whatever we have at hand- old sheets, toilet paper tubes, neighbors, the city council. Together we create a world where conflicts are resolved without brutality, a world where LGBTQ people of color have all the support and resources and safety they need to bloom into their own unique selves.

Let us create a world where each of us brings our whole self, knowing we need everyone’s creativity to stitch all those pieces together, into one whole beautiful quilt.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Hope and Doubt

This has been a hard week in our country after some hard months and some hard years. Wendell Berry, the poet activists, wrote in his 70s: (2007) after decades of activism
“It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good...
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?”
 Yes, what can we tell them about hope?

Today, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. We today have a level of unemployment not seen since the great depression. Today we have seen with our own eyes the video of George Floyd’s murder, and we have seen people rising up in the streets all over the country, and even while the country’s eyes are focused on police violence, we see new examples every day.

It’s easy to look at this situation and get discouraged. This is especially true for folks like Elandria Williams, co-moderator of the UUA who told us at our vigil this week that she has been an activist and organizer since she was 14 and had friends killed by police, and is now 40 and fighting for the same issues. But somehow despite being permanently disabled by injuries she received while protesting in her youth, despite all the institutional racism she has endured, she has the will to keep fighting, and is still fighting today. She knows that we are not one more week of protests away from a just and fair future. This is a long game.

Dare we have hope? It’s common sense to look at the graphs and predictions about the pandemic and say “this is going to get worse before it gets better.” We have reason to be cynical as we wonder -- after the smoke clears how far will we have moved the line on racial justice and violent policing? Is it unreasonable to hope? Unitarian Universalist Theologian and minister James Luther Adams would have been a teenager during the Spanish flu Epidemic and was serving his first congregation at the start of the great depression. He taught us that rather than arguing theology, we should ask -what difference does it make in how I act? What difference do my beliefs make n how I change the world for the better? (This is called the He relied on the “pragmatic theory of meaning”) That’s such a relief to me- that when we are not sure what to believe, when the nature of reality is uncertain, we can simply ask: if I believe – will it make me a better person? If we all believed, would it make a better world? Like the characters in our story Butterflies under our Hats, I believe we need hope to do what needs to be done.

Environmental activist Joanna Macy, now in her 90s, says there are 3 stories- one is “business as usual”, that the way things are is fine and is they only way they can be. The second is the Great unraveling- the story of all the destruction and injustice we see around us. The third story she calls “the great turning.” After looking at the other 2 stories and saying “ the first story is leading us to catastrophe and [we] refuse to let the second story have the last word.” the third story is about “the emergence of new and creative human responses, it is about the epochal transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world. We call this story the Great Turning. There is no point in arguing about which of these stories is “right.” All three are happening. The question is which one we want to put our energy behind.”[i]

When we come out the other side of this pandemic, when the protests have quieted down and the smoke cleared, and the ballots are cast, things will be different than we could ever have imagined on March 1, than we can imagine even today. So I encourage you to hold a vision that gives you hope. Hold onto that vision of a future where our black siblings do not fear the police. A vision where all who are sick receive care. A world where everyone has a vote that counts, and everyone votes. A world where worker safety is a priority for every business, where we take care of one another in hard times. Give yourself to the story of a brighter future, and hold that before yourself as we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Prayer for our Time

Spirit of life, Our hearts are heavy.

This week the family of George Floyd lays him to rest, and the country grieves with them. We pray for comfort for the family, and for all those families broken by police violence.

Millions of protesters around the world have shown up in person and online to share their outrage and their demand for change. We pray for them too. May they be safe. May they inspire each of us to do our own part to work for change.

We hold in our hearts this morning all our black and brown siblings. We honor their pain. May their voices be heard loud and clear.

We pray for the institutions bound up in these unjust practices and biases that they may be transformed. 

We pray that white people will come to understand our role in moving this change forward. Help us to listen deeply and with humility.

May we all have the courage to do what needs to be done, and faith that a more just world is possible.