Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What about White Men? (November 5, 2017)

A few weeks ago my husband and I were having a pretty heated discussion about how, when the refrigerator was too full, it was really hard to keep track of what was in there and make sure it all got eaten before it spoiled. “White people problems, am I right?” quipped my astute son from across the table. Pick your favorite online content provider and type in “white people problems” and you will come up with pages of videos and essays and top 10 lists lampooning white privilege. A lot of them have to do with not being able to get soy milk for your Pumpkin spice latte. But the underlying assumption that white people don’t have any real struggles or problems -- as if there are no white people with empty refrigerators right now. It creates a challenging cognitive dissonance- the more we explore and understand the complexities of the asymmetrical systems we live in, the more complex our own identity, our own role in the world becomes.

I grew up listening to feminist voices, and could easily see with my own eyes the disparities between the opportunities for women and the opportunities for men. Feminism seemed to be divided into 2 worldviews. Sure, there were feminists who thought men had made a mess of things and could even be described as “man hating.” But I was taught that the system of rigid gender roles, the patriarchal hierarchical structures, were oppressive not just to women but to men as well. One of the things that first attracted me to my now husband was that he was a feminist. As the great Cultural Critic Bell Hooks wrote: “Patriarchy has no gender.”
“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” [bell hooks in  Feminism is for Everybody ]
So, when I hear about empowered women, I smile. But when I hear jokes about women taking over as the new political power, about women relegating men to powerlessness as women have been relegated, I worry. Because I’m a Universalist, and we don’t believe that the goal of life is for good guys to triumph over bad guys, but we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’m not interested in tipping the asymmetrical system in my direction; I’m interested in creating a system that is liberating for everyone. I don’t believe that my husband and son are the bad guys- they, like me, are just people born into a patriarchal system.

While my mother’s generation won for me the right to wear pants to work, and to work outside the home, men (who identify as men) who wear feminine things to work today are often meet with stigmatization. Men who are stay-at home dads, men who are nurses, struggle against the patriarchy in their own way. I noticed the way my husband always got paid more than me for our almost identical entry level desk jobs, and the way car salesmen and bartenders defer to him. But I also see the tiny box of cultural expression that limits how he can be in the world. That limiting identity has come to be called toxic masculinity. As the Geek Feminist website defines the term: “Toxic masculinity is one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”[i]

The system of tightly constructed binary gender roles oppresses even more forcefully those who don’t naturally fall into one or the other of the 2 possible roles. That gender binary has done no end of violence to intersex and transgender folks. So the goal of overthrowing the patriarchy is not that women would win and men would lose; for there to be real justice and equity in our human systems I dream of a time when not only would cisgender women be liberated from an asymmetrical gender binary, but the that genderqueer folks would be liberated and cisgender men would be liberated too.

That being said, men need to be careful how they enter the feminist dialogue. One of the pathologies of the patriarchy is that it puts the straight white male at the center of everything. Part of the reason I was so moved by the Wonder Woman movie was not because it was the best movie I’d ever seen, but because a female character was finally at the center of a super hero movie. And men deferred to her. There’s this great scene where she crosses an impassible combat zone, revealing the depth of her skills and talent in, and the otherwise formidable men working with her let go of their male centrality and fall in line behind her. I get choked up just thinking about it. Finally, in my 40s, here is a major Hollywood movie, where a woman is not just a “super for a girl” but formidable by all standards.

For too long in our culture we have viewed the white male experience as normative, to the extent that scientists would perform medical research experiments only on white men, because their experience was seen as prototypical.[ii] As a feminist who is also a Universalist, I have great respect for the men I know who are trying to authentically express their own gender, who respect others who are authentically expressing their gender, and who are willing, as the folks who representing a group on the “have” side of the power imbalance, to be allies to women and transgender people who are on the dis-empowered side of the imbalance. Being an ally requires taking yourself out of the center.

What being a male ally means to me is speaking out among other men when you see or hear something that dis-empowers women. Whether that’s saying “I’m not sure everyone heard Melinda’s idea, and I thought it was really right on, can you restate that Melinda?” or whether it’s interrupting “locker room talk” or speaking out publicly when you realize a powerful man in your industry is harassing women. Being an ally also means decentralizing your experience as a white male. It means not mansplaining feminism to women, it means being a good listener. It means letting women be the experts on being women, and intersex people be the experts on being intersex. As it says in the Statement of the 1st European Intersex Community Event: “[allies] must learn about intersex issues from intersex people, without pressuring intersex people to provide input unless they themselves want to.”[iii]

But of course the power dynamics in my life are not marked just by my gender. In addition to being a woman, I’m also white, middle class, college educated, bisexual, clergy, parent etc. While being a woman provides some disadvantages in our culture as we make $.77 on the dollar, as our sexual boundaries are not respected by men in powerful positions. But I’m also white, with all the privileges that entails. Our congregation spent a lot of time talking about that recently- we know that there is plenty of hard data that white people have a different experience of the US justice system than our black neighbors do, that we get offered different loan rates, that education of white students is different, the list goes on. Being a black woman has challenges I don’t face as a white woman. This is called intersectionality. Because we are never just one thing. The idea of intersectionality was developed by legal scholar KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in 1989 when a lawsuit alleging discrimination toward autoworkers failed because you could not legally be discriminated against for being black and a woman at the same time.[iv]  Each person lives at an intersection of identity. So a white man who is, for example, a disabled veteran living in poverty, is already pretty decentralized in our culture- in many parts of his life, he will not experience a position of privilege. And yet, when he goes to the doctor, statistically speaking, he is more likely to receive medical care based on research designed for his body than a black veteran, or a female veteran at the same VA clinic. In the real world, a person can be both privileged and disadvantaged at the same moment.

I mentioned  the title of today’s sermon to my husband and he joked “great, white men finally get a chance to be heard.” [sarcasm dripping from his voice] It is absolutely true that white, straight men have dominated our narratives for centuries. But this narrative can be oppressive to a white man too. I can totally understand the white men living in or near poverty who say “is this what privilege looks like?” The toxic masculine tells us that a man, of any race, is only worthy based on his work, and we are living at a time when many of the historically living wage, dependable jobs have disappeared. While there could be a sense of solidarity among white men and men of color who feeling the oppression of economic inequality, we know that historically those in power are more comfortable when oppressed peoples turn their enmity on one another. Frederick Douglass, who wrote, "The slaveholders...by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black man himself." That is to say, if the workers of the world really did unite, the economic order would be disrupted. As Dr. Takiya Nur Amin, the keynote speaker at TPUC, remarked - it is true that low wage workers and folks living in poverty share common struggles and experiences, at the same time at the end of the day, if you are white you will have all those privileges that relate to bias based on skin color- better medical care, better education, better job opportunities, a better experience of the criminal justice system etc, than your black neighbor who works at the same minimum wage job, or was laid off from the same manufacturing plant. The interlocking and overlapping intersections of both privilege and oppression[v] mean there is no single unitive experience of what it means to be a white man in America.

Remember that at the foundation of our work on racism, of our work on gender equality is the belief that individuals should not be judged by based on generalizations about a larger group they were part of. I’m talking about stereotyping first - it’s not any more okay to stereotype a white man than it is to stereotype a black woman. Although when people with power over lives and livelihoods stereotype people with less power, the results are more dangerous. When we stereotype white privilege we have pumpkin late jokes. When we stereotype black men we end up with the criminal justice system we have today.

I’m also talking about how the lived experience of an individual person is always unique within the larger societal forces. Here’s a common theme I hear on TV “how bad could his life be, he’s rich?” or “I can’t have any sympathy for her, she’s famous” but many of the challenges we face as human beings are invisible from the surface. Neither race, nor gender, nor wealth protect us from physical or psychological abuse, nor from physical or mental illness. No privilege protects us from human tragedy. So we have to consider both Individual and systemic oppression. We can experience individual oppression while still living within cultural privilege.

At the fall meeting of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, one of the delegates asked why the UUA is talking about “white supremacy culture” within the UUA and within our congregations. Isn’t a white supremacist someone who belongs to a violent hate group? Our speaker, Dr. Takiya Nur Amin, explained that as an academic she uses words very carefully, so she is not saying that we, in this room are white supremacists, but rather that “A culture of white supremacy exists in UU, a culture that perpetuates whiteness as normative and superior.” This is something that Debbie Irving, author of Waking up White also talked about in her book- it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around the fact that we can be good people, who want to help, who would never knowingly hurt someone else, and yet by the fact of our birth we participate in White Supremacy culture.

How can our UU theology help us to hold all these things at once? Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, UU theologian, was once asked what she thought about evil. She suggested that UUs believe evil is trans-personal, that it exists in structures and cultural systems outside ourselves. We believe that all humans have the capacity for a huge range of good and evil. Humans aren’t evil, but they can do Evil and participate in evil. There is no KIND of person who is evil- it’s not true that men are evil and women are good, or white people are evil and people of color are good. But all of us participate, to one extent or another in the systemic oppressions embedded in our culture. Some of us benefit more from those systems than others. And all of us have a responsibility to dismantle asymmetrical systems, and to build more just systems.

White people have an access to power that can be really important in this work for change. Men have a privileged position from which they can work for change -- spheres of influence that people of color and women sometimes can’t access. And any of us, when we are occupying a position of privilege, can step out of the center, out of the spotlight, out of our comfort zone and invite a new voice to be heard. Every one of us has a unique position from which we can work, as our principles suggested, for “justice equity and compassion in human relations” can act for “peace, liberty and justice for all.”


[i] http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Toxic_masculinity
a powerful and personal presentation of the issues https://thenib.com/toxic-masculinity
and a useful article on masculinity https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/creating-a-non-toxic-masculinity-lbkr/

[ii] http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/213095.html

[iii] http://intersexday.org/en/vienna/

[iv] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.8e0be9e94580

[v] We don’t normally talk about overlapping privileges, more commonly about how oppressions compound when they interlock https://www.colorlines.com/articles/report-women-who-are-color-trans-and-hiv-positive-must-fight-overlapping-oppressionshttps://www.colorlines.com/articles/report-women-who-are-color-trans-and-hiv-positive-must-fight-overlapping-oppressions

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Gifts of Not Knowing (October 15, 2017)

When I was in Jr. High school and my friends were preparing for their confirmation or their Bat Mitzvah, it seemed, from the outside, like they had some very specific answers to their questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. At my Unitarian Universalist church the minister taught a “coming of age” class and explained that in our faith tradition, we had to discern for ourselves what was true. All the adults in my UU community agreed that this was often much harder, that it was a much more challenging journey without clear answers, but that it would be worth it in the long run. So today I want to consider two questions about that assumption. Why is it hard not to know? And why is it worth it?

As a kid I often noticed that adults would make things up when they didn’t know instead of just admitting “I don’t know.” There’s a story that apparently I tell a lot because my son sees it coming a mile away- yes Nick, this is the one about the chemistry teacher. One day in high school chemistry class, our teacher was lecturing our badly behaved class about how things were transformed when they burned. “but why does it make light?” I asked. He gave an answer that didn’t really address my question, so I asked a follow up. Eventually he tersely explained that my questions would not be on the test, and I should cease and desist.

It was only decades later when I was watching a documentary that the narrator explained that there is a lot science still doesn’t know about fire that I finally understood- the chemistry teacher couldn’t answer my question because science hadn’t figured it out yet. So why wouldn’t the teacher just say that? To admit you don’t know you are admitting that you are human, that your knowledge is incomplete, that you have more to learn. Probably admitting any weakness in front of a hostile classroom of high school students who would rather be anywhere else did not feel like an option.

In my role as your minister, this happens to me all the time. You guys ask some great question about how John Murray’s theology was different from Hosea Ballou’s theology and I feel like I’m about to fail a pop quiz. I’m supposed to be the expert. How could you trust me if I don’t know everything? Usually I do swallow my pride, remember that ministers are not all knowing, and ask if someone else knows the answer, and failing that I’ll look it up and get back to you.

But some questions, like “what is the nature of fire”, just lead to more questions. In a recent Ted Radio hour Tabetha Boyajian, a professor of astronomy at Louisiana State University, was talking about some unusual transit patterns noticed in NASA's Kepler Mission data that scientists still can’t fully explain. Guy Roz suggested: “So science is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And it seems like in this case, you still don't know what's going on…. That is great. There are more questions now than you can answer, which is better - which is great. Boyajian replied “Well, that's - yeah. That's science. [i]“ The first gift of not knowing is the curiosity, the open mindedness that leads to new discoveries, to whole new fields of knowledge opening up.

But the discomfort of not knowing is a whole other thing in maters of the heart. Recently I said to someone “I know exactly how you feel” and then mirrored back to them what I thought I heard them saying. I was humbled when they replied, “that’s not at all how I feel.” We don’t really know what any other person is experiencing, and when we can admit that to ourselves and to them, and be open to their experience with curiosity and compassion, we improve the odds that true connection can happen. When I am with someone I care about and they say “I am in deep in a financial hole I feel like I’ll never get out- what am I going to do?” I don’t know. “Why is my cancer back?” I don’t know. “What can we do about the mass extinction of species?” I don’t know. “What is the birth of my child going to be like?” I don’t know. Admitting we don’t know requires humility, and humility is just what we need to be available for life’s great mysteries and for one another.

I would much prefer to have a ready answer- 3 easy steps for healing from heartbreak, facing cancer, surviving economic inequality, and too often, that’s exactly how we do respond. We feel so powerless when we don’t know how to help, so we offer quick answers so we can exit that difficult place of unknowing. When I was pregnant with my son, everyone had advice for me, but as quickly became apparent, each birth is totally unique. The more advice I got, the more alone I felt with my actual lived experience that didn’t match what everyone was sharing about their own experience. Instead of advice, what might really have helped was some non-judgmental compassion. No matter what challenge we are facing, almost none of the friendly advice touches the fear, the sadness, the anger, the powerlessness we feel. But if we can take the risk of being a compassionate, non-judgmental presence with ourselves, and with one another and with the unfolding mystery, our hearts open and we feel less alone.

When you show up for someone in their uncertainty, don’t be surprised if you are touched as well. When we can be present to unanswered questions with an open heart, we open ourselves up to that scary, powerless feeling of unknowing, we allow that unknowing to touch us as it is touching our friend who is dwelling inside it. This is the gift of unknowing in our relationships to other people -- it has the power to transform both of us.

If you accept the notion that there is always a lot we don’t know about other people and their experience, even about someone as close to us as a partner or child, this unknowing is even more useful when considering the divine. I hear so many folks say they know definitively what God is like and what God wants. We try to organize God into tidy boxes, with systematic theology and hallmark cards, but as some theologians say, the divine cannot be tamed. God is wild. One of the hallmarks of UU theology is that we believe that revelation is ongoing. That is to say- the world is changing and evolving, we are changing and evolving, and the divine is changing too.

When I started my training as a spiritual director, I wanted to experience traditional forms of prayer. Having been raised UU in a mostly humanist church, instruction in prayer was not part of my religious education.. As I would sit down to pray, I felt awkward and I was sure I was making mistakes, not knowing the basic things everyone else knew. So eventually I began to pray “Spirt of Life, or whoever you are, whatever your name is, I don’t know how to pray, sorry if I’m doing it wrong, please show me how to pray.” I groped around like this for a while before coming across this little prayer by the contemplative Thomas Keating on my centering prayer app. It was such a relief to me that I use it now almost every day

“Here I am God, desperately in need of your holy spirit, please give me your holy spirit according to your promise. I don’t know how to pray rightly, so I just sit here and allow you to pray in me.” Keating is a great master, a great teacher who after a lifetime of practice offers a prayer not so different from the one I made in ignorance as a beginner. The ignorance and inexperience that seemed like an obstacle to me, turned out to have been a gift that opened me up to a deeper relationship with the divine.

As Gerald May says “It is precisely at those times of not knowing that we are most alive… If you really think about it, I believe you will see that your life is greater, more full and awake, even, perhaps more joyous at such times than at any time of certainty.” [The Awakened Heart p. 122] The more I read of the contemplatives and the mystics I see this theme emerging - that in fact not knowing is the only way we can begin to know the divine. The divine, by definition is different from humans. If we let our human knowing drive our inquiry, we could be looking in a limiting way, in a limited range. Not knowing if you believe in God is actually a powerful place to be on your spiritual journey. A mystic is one who is seeking direct experience of the divine. The root of the word mystic is the same as for mystery- And what is the first source of our Unitarian Universalist tradition “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Some UUs are still reeling from a time in their life when they said to a Sunday school teacher, or parent, or priest “I don’t know if that’s true.” And the authority figure replied “well you just have to believe it.” To many of us it seemed like making yourself believe something was the only way to get closer to truth, closer to the divine. Atheists often get stuck in their own box- we logically imagine what we would do if we were God, notice that God has not ended hunger and war, and thereby prove to ourselves definitively that God does not exist. But when we start with not knowing, our minds and hearts open, and the world becomes a bigger place. Just as admitting to your students that you don’t know creates space for everyone to be curious together; admitting that we don’t know about the divine is one of the best paths toward truth. Today we are atheists, agnostics and theists together. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that when we open our minds and hearts we will find something that we want to call God. I’m only saying that the more we open our hearts and minds, emptying ourselves of preconceived ideas and expectations, the better chance we have of being present to reality --the reality of us, together in this room in this moment with all that is here.

So if we don’t know anything, doesn’t that lead us to a kind of relativism where all ideas are equal, and we can believe anything we want? No, as a science journalist told my class full of theology students, we do actually know what mechanical principles allow us to build a bridge. And we can count on that bridge to obey those rules well enough to trust our bodies and cars and trains to it. When it comes to building bridges, not all ideas are equal, though our engineering gets better when we are open to new observations and ideas tested against reality. When we open to the world with curiosity we will meet… something. That something may be the sunrise that predictably comes later and later into the winter, the wounded heart of a friend, or the ineffable mystery of the spirit of life.

Back I was first thinking of going into ministry, one of my acquaintances mentioned that she had considered ministry, but didn’t have enough faith. I was surprised to hear her say that because in my faith tradition questioning was a strength. In the church I grew up in, “agnostic” was one of the choices you could check off on the survey. One of the gifts of being UU is that you don’t have to know. But until recently, I kind of thought of not knowing as something on the way to something else. We don’t know about the outcome of a scientific experiment until it is complete, but there is an expectation that someday we will know -- that we could know anything given enough time. Lately, I’ve been coming to a realization that not knowing is not just an in between place that must resolve into knowing, but that not knowing has its own gifts. Where knowing can give us the delightful satisfaction of wrapping our tidy box up with a ribbon, knowing allows us to be humble and curious. It allows us to keep our minds and hearts open; it allows us to stay present in the reality of the moment, even when that reality is confusing and uncertain. That space of unknowing is exactly where the soul grows and blooms. The spiritual journey, like science “is more often than not about raising more questions than finding answers. And that’s great.”

[i] http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=554105915

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Blessings for All Beings (September 24, 2017)

A Tree's Best Friend
(Note- this story is heavily drawn from my new favorite book The hidden life of Trees by )
I want to tell you a story about good friends- the kind of friend who would feed you if you were sick, and protect you if you were under attack.
The kind of friend who, if she had baked some cookies, would give you one.
Even though this sounds like a magical “once upon a time” story, it’s actually an amazing “you won’t believe what scientists are learning” story.
If a tree had a best friend of another species, what do you think it might be?
I’m going to vote for… mycorrhizal  fungus!
Not just any old fungus,
So far scientists have identified 75,000 kinds of fungus in the world, and they think there may be millions more!
some are enemies of trees- they would eat a tree as soon as look at it.
But the oak tree has a best friend called the Oak Milkcap
Oak Milk Cap - Lactarius quietus Photo credit Wild About Britain
To pair up with an oak tree, the Milkcap grows its fungal threads right into the soft root hairs at the end of the oak tree roots.
(Any fungus that symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant is called mycorrhizal )
A tree that has a fungus partner can gather up to twice the nitrogen and phosphorus as trees without- and trees need those chemicals to live!
and fungi get something out of the friendship too- Fungi can’t grow their own food, they get sugar and other carbohydrates from the trees-
sometimes up to 1/3 of the total food a tree produces for itself.
SO the fungi also help absorb heavy metals, which are bad for tree roots, and they help ward off intruders, like bacteria or one of those enemy fungi.
They really get to be dependent on one another. 

But it doesn’t have just one best friend, because the milkcap will roam through the forest floor finding other fungi, and other tree roots.
These fungal partners help make what is sometimes called “the world wood web”
One tree can have as many as 100 different fungi connected to its roots.
And the fungi many connect different species of trees.
And like our human internet, trees share information through their web.
They warn each other of an insect attack, so that trees can protect themselves by making chemicals that are toxic or repellent to the attackers.
They pass on genetic information so that the next generation can grow up more resilient against threats their elders faced.

That’s why when foresters cut down paper birch trees
their douglas fir neighbors suffered too.
The mycorrhizal fungi physically connect these two totally different species so they can share resources and help one another.
A tree that has a lot of sun can turn that sun into carbon, and then share the carbon through the roots with another tree who needs it through the web.
This web helps share nutrients and even water from a place in the forest where they are abundant to a place where they may be scarce.

Today, after you all are talking about magical beasts, we are going to stay and offer our blessings to all the beings,
like Mycorrhizal fungi, that we admire and love.
So I’m going to add this photo of the Oak Milkcap to our altar here and say
“I ask for your blessing for the Oak Milkcap, and all the fungi that partner with trees”
and then you will say “May the Spirit of Life bless _________”

A Blessing for All Beings
In the catholic tradition, it is common to celebrate a “blessing of the animals” near the Feast of St. Francis. For centuries people have brought their dogs or cats or goats and sheep to be blessed by a priest.

Today we want to draw that circle even wider. As Unitarian Universalists we know that we are part of an interdependent web of life that includes every being, from the smallest soil microbes, to the tallest oldest trees. From the scary shark to the snugly kitten. We know that even beings who don’t seem to have any connection to our human lives are part of a profoundly complex system of inter-relatedness, and are kin to us in ways we may never understand.
And so today we honor and bless all beings.

What does the word “blessing” mean to Unitarian Universalists?
First of all, it’s not something only a minister can do- we are all directly connected to the spirit of life which flows through us all. SO I am not going to do the blessing today, we will all do it together.

We who gather here are theists, and atheists and agnostics, so perhaps a blessing, for us, means simply to hold in consciousness and compassion. To imagine the light of life and love holding each of these beings, encouraging each to unfold in whatever ways life calls to them in the community of beings.

Some of you have brought with you a being for our blessing, or an object that reminds you of that being. Some of these beings are present in our lives right now, and we will ask for a blessing on their life, others have died or become extinct and so we bless their memory. 
I have some extra objects here for folks that would like to ask for a blessing and don’t already have something.
So as you feel moved please come forward and add an object  to our altar and say:
“I ask for your blessing for ___________”
and then we will all respond “May the Spirit of Life bless _________”