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.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What UUs Believe About God

If the title of today’s service made you nervous- you’re not alone. In a room with 50 Unitarian Universalists, you are likely to have 55 different beliefs about the divine, and a bunch of different feelings about just saying the word “God.”

Since our earliest days both Unitarians and Universalists have stood up for the right of each person to believe what is in their heart about God. Way back in 1568 King John Sigismund, the first only Unitarian King, issued the broadest edict of religious toleration in Europe at the time, (granting the Socinians the same level of toleration as was already enjoyed by the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists) saying:
“In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, … for faith is the gift of God, this come from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.” 
My childhood home
As your minister I can’t tell you what to believe; you will listen to what I say and see how it sits with your soul. As UU theologian Rebecca Parker tells us: “UUs do not have a creed, but this living tradition, our history, is like a house we live in that we did not build - the house we live in and care for. We must know it in order to preserve that which is worth preserving, and change what needs changing.”

So today I’d like to give you just a bit of a house tour. You may not agree with everything in our history, but as Parker suggests, by doing a hosing inspection, we know what we want to preserve and what we want to change. We know where we agree and where we dissent. Our Universalist ancestors back in the 18th century were troubled by the Calvinist theology which suggested that humans are fully depraved and in bondage to sin and subject to God. Our Universalist Ancestors were Christians, but with a radical belief in Goodness and love, God’s love and goodness, and our own capacity for good. They dared to ask the heretical question “why would a loving God create people only to damn them to hell?” At the center of their theology was the belief that no one was excluded from God’s love.

But not all UUs believe in God. This became an important part of our movement in the early 20th century with the birth of the humanist movement, in which Unitarians had an important role. This was the time of WW 1 and the Spanish Flu, when it was hard to have faith in the old images of God. Perhaps what’s happening in our country right now is calling you to question and rethink some of your beliefs too. The early 20th century was also a booming time for science, and the Unitarian side of our tradition was grounded in the idea that reason and science must be compatible with religious beliefs. Humanism de-centralizes God and theology, and instead emphasizes ethics and human action. Some Early humanists were Atheists, but all believed that instead of arguing about doctrine and theology, it was important to live an ethical life.

Both Unitarians and Universalists always believed that humans have good capacities, including conscience and freedom to act. For UU theists we might believe that those qualities are given to us by God, and mirror those qualities in the divine. For Humanists, our capacities and freedoms are uniquely evolved in humans and take on central importance – if there is no God, this is our mess to fix.

UUs today, be they theist, agnostic or Atheist, tend to believe in our own capacities to do good, to make good choices, and the importance of living out those good choices.

In front of my childhood home 
A lot of UUs today will say they have had numinous or holy feelings in nature. This part of our house was built in the 19th century especially with the transcendentalists, like Unitarian minister Emerson, who spoke of a “God [as] close as breath.” Instead of a God out there somewhere far away, UUs who believe in God tend to believe that the divine is “immanent”- an intimate part of all life. That’s why some UUs feel more comfortable with the phrase “Spirit of Life” – they see something sacred and holy in living beings.

Important parts of our UU house were rebuilt by Unitarian Universalists, along with other liberal religious folks, who worked hard to deconstruct oppressive images of the divine, images that are Patriarchal, racist, ableist. Those UUs who believe in God tend to believe that the divine is beyond Gender, beyond Race. That if God is imminent in all life then the divine is present in temporarily able bodied people as well as disabled folks, old bodies and young bodies, queer bodies and straight bodies. For UU atheists, those images of a white patriarchal God that privileges some and oppresses others are too powerful to redeem, and they are atheistic to that God.

In the 1980s the women’s movement in UU asked us to deconstruct these patriarchal and oppressive ideas, not only by taking out all the “he/him” pronouns for god, but by inquiring what else needed to be deconstructed about those old and oppressive images of God. It was through this inquiry that Unitarian Universalists came to consider earth-centered spiritualities and the interdependent web of life. The divine was not just for humans, but deeply interwoven in all life. I myself was an atheist until I participated in a women’s group at my UU church and started to liberate my own images of God from that White man in the sky that you see everywhere. If God could be a woman, if God could be black, if God could be a spirit infused in every part of the web of life, if God was love, maybe …

In the 20th century many UUs gave up on the word God. In our old hymnal if you look in the index under God it said “see O Life that Maketh All things New.” In the grey silver hymnal we use today in the index it says “God, Goddess and Spirit.” This service today is probably the most times you will ever hear the word “god” in a UU worship. Sometimes we say “the divine” or “sacred” or “Spirit.” For some of us when we say “web of life” we are referring to what is most holy for us. When I say “all embracing love” I am speaking of the most holy thing I can think of, close are our very breath, and bigger than any one of us. Some folks feel that trying to name God is limiting- that God is just a mystery. Several of our coming of age kids said they “didn’t know about God” and we assured them that not knowing is okay. That’s a proud part of our tradition too.

I want to give you a moment now to bring to mind any words that you like to use to talk about that which is most sacred, for that which holds all. Words for what gives you hope when the problems of the world are larger than you and me.

What do UUs believe about God? You can hear how many answers there are to that question, including “please don’t use that word, it is too loaded with centuries of oppression and exclusion” But the house we inherit called Unitarian Universalism is one built on the belief that there is something precious and scared about life. We believe in Love, even when our hearts are broken. We believe that connection is important, and that we are not alone. Our house is built on a belief in the human capacity for Good, and we believe that what we do is important. Some of us are not sure what we believe, and we all agree that not- knowing is important too. Some of us believe that what holds us and gives us hope is divine, is spirit. Others believe it is just life, that life is so much bigger than all of us, surprising us with its creativity and renewal. The cornerstone of our house is the knowing that our ideas of the sacred must be big enough to hold every person, to hold all of life.