Saturday, November 21, 2020

A Very Covid Thanksgiving


Friends, I suspect that the upcoming holidays are going to be a challenge for many of us. With Covid cases at a sharp incline many places around the country, Thanksgiving is bound to feel different than in ordinary years. Whether or not we feel we can “celebrate” thanksgiving this year, I would encourage you to “observe” the holiday.

So much in our lives has been disrupted that it can be disorienting. Just this week, several people told me they missed meetings because they “forgot what day it was.” If we are sheltering at home most days, they all can begin to run together. I believe this is one of the reasons we have holidays- to orient us in the year, and to create a contrast to our strange new “ordinary” days.

My own family has decided we will not travel this season. We are going to observe the holiday in our own households. I have no small amount of sadness about that- but I know that we forego being together in person this year so that we can celebrate together next year. Surely this strange thanksgiving of 2020 will stand out in our memories in years to come. Since the holiday will not be usual, we can’t count on the usual landmarks of the day, whatever they may be for your family. So I encourage you to proactively make a plan for how you will observe this very strange Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, we can be creative with our observances- while we respect tradition, we know that humans created those traditions and so we are empowered to make new ones. Maybe you will still dress in your holiday finest and sit down to Turkey dinner for one, or however many are in your household. Perhaps you’ll set your phone or computer at the other end of the table and share pumpkin pie with a friend or relative through video magic. Doesn’t feel right? Perhaps instead you will stay in your pajamas all day, order a pizza and watch a Star Trek marathon, enjoy the autumn day walking outside, or fold 1000 paper cranes. Here are some usual parts of a holiday observance to consider:

  • Food: What food would feel special or comforting, decadent or healing?
  • Dress: Is there something fun you don’t usually wear that might be fun or meaningful?
  • Connecting: it is particularly important that we reach out to one another. Bring to mind folks who would make you feel better if you were sad, who would be fun to connect with if you were ready for fun. Bring to mind folks who might be lonely and would appreciate a call, text, video chat or letter from you.
  • Decorating: Is there some way you’d like to change the space where you will spend Thanksgiving? You could bring in leaves and pinecones from the outside, or get out Gramma’s special occasion tablecloth, or make a blanket fort in the living room.
  • Giving: Many observances are marked by finding ways to give. Donate money online or by check. Take a box of food to the local food pantry. Drop packages of pumpkin cookies on the porches of your neighbors and run away giggling.
  • History: the American Thanksgiving story we were taught in school does not acknowledge the painful and oppressive reality of the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years before colonists arrived. This day is observed as a Day of Mourning for many indigenous people. Consider taking some time to learn more about history, perhaps even joining into the UU Teach In on the subject.
  • Gratitude: Scientists tell us that taking just a few minutes to call to mind things you are grateful for is good for both physical and mental health. Start small- food to eat, a roof over your head,  people you care about who care about you…

When the holidays finally come, hold your plans loosely. Sometimes the thing we thought would make us giggle makes us sad. If you had meant to be solemn and mournful and find yourself giggling so be it. Give authority to the present moment. There are a lot of feelings to feel this year. Allow yourself permission to drop your plan and call a friend, take a walk, take a nap, and give yourself time to process whatever arises for you.

Blessings for your Holiday Observance.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A LIberating Faith

 What gives us the strength, patience and courage to do hard things? We choose to do hard things, we endure hard things because they fit into our sense of what is right, our sense of what is possible. I’ve got a little scar on my arm from the smallpox vaccine, and I'm sure I cried and kicked when I got that vaccine, but from 1958 to 1977, enough people in the world got that vaccine that smallpox is now gone, making it the only human disease to be eradicated. Today’s children don’t have to get that vaccinated, because enough people did that hard thing because they believed that action would spare themselves and their children from getting that terrible disease. We imagined a world without smallpox, we believed it was a worthwhile goal, and the whole world united in that common purpose we ended what used to be a source of great human suffering.

Underneath the will to do a hard thing are our beliefs about who we are and what is possible. Right now, our country, our denomination, and our congregation are doing the hard work of racial justice. Working to end the oppression of transgender persons, of disabled persons. Why do we do it? Because we believe it is necessary, we believe it is the work of compassion, and we believe it is possible.

In 2017 our denomination was called to accountability by Unitarian Universalists of color to root out the structures of oppression inside our own organizations contained. We UUs have been working on this a long time, but it seems that whatever we were doing was like pruning the weeds back in a garden, instead of getting at the root of the problem. So we convened a national group called the “Commission on institutional change” to help us get at the root of the matter. Their report was published this past summer. There’s a lot of interesting things in there, and it’s well written, I’d encourage you to read it. One of the recommendations that surprised me most, was the need for us to focus on liberating theologies. That all UUs need to know, in a deep way, that working to end oppression arises directly from the root of what we believe, and who we are.

“We need to articulate a theology of liberation, experimentation and innovation grounded in our UU principles and sources of inspiration. Developing a shared theology that centers on helping to unearth, manifest and point the way toward liberation along with experimentation that strives for our collective flourishing. This theology will also call us to be accountable to the legacies of our past deeds and to work for an equitable future. This will lay the ground work for our work around truth, transformation and reparations.” P. 16
The phrase “liberation theology” comes from a grassroots movement in Latin America in the 1960s in a time of crushing poverty, social injustice and violence. Liberation theology arose in a Catholic context, in “base communities”- small church groups gathered to help meet basic needs like food and water, and to study the bible to search for meaning – specific, particular meaning about what it meant to be poor in Latin American in that historic moment. The Base Communities looked for themselves in the scripture and found that there were plenty of examples of God’s compassion for the oppressed. Over and over again, especially in the books of the prophets, we find examples calling out oppressive behavior as unethical. Out of this community study grew a Liberation Theology in which the God of the Judeo Christian Scriptures wants freedom for all of us, notices the cries of the oppressed, and is moved by them. Liberation theology honors the specific wisdom of the poor and their relationship with the divine. This theological spark made its way around the world to folks everywhere grappling with oppression.

The Moses story is one story where oppressed peoples can easily find themselves. It’s a story that has spoken to our spirits over thousands of years. The importance and power of that story is why it is told every year in the Jewish Passover celebration, is why it is found in the gospel and Spiritual musical traditions, speaking to black Americans across the centuries- a story of how freedom is possible against impossible odds. We don’t really know what story Rosa Parks was thinking of as she did that hard thing back in 1955, (as today’s children’s story imagined) but we know the Moses story has inspired oppressed peoples in many ages, and that as people marched for Civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the story was in the music of the movement, and in the sermons and the grassroots gatherings of the civil rights movement.

When you feel called to do hard things -- to face oppression in our own life, or co-conspire dismantle systems of oppressions for others, what story is in your heart?

There are other stories that also have great power in our culture. For centuries scripture and religious teachings have been used to encourage the oppressed to accept their lot in life, to practice forbearance and patience, a kind of quietism that discourages revolution and uprising. Religious authorities have used those same scriptures to argue that God wanted slavery, because it appeared in the bible, to argue that slavery was the natural order of things.

Some teach that God, or karma, rewarded some worthy with an easy life, and oppressive those unworthy. I hear talk like this on the news these days more than I ever have before- that some lives are just worth more than others. And we see how those beliefs are turned into oppressive laws, policies and structures.

It matters what we believe. And UUs must notice and name the beliefs that allow systems of oppression to flourish. It’s a common mistake to say that “UUs can believe whatever they want” because we believe that every life has inherent worth and dignity and some beliefs, stories and actions clash with those principles. We are called as individuals and as a movement to make sure our beliefs and values more and more come into alignment with our lives. Clarifying our beliefs is an important part of that process

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition draws from many sources, including:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • ·Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Whether or not any one of us come from the Jewish or Christian traditions, we are encouraged to learn from that wisdom. Some will look at the story of Moses, and see a powerful story of liberation, seeing the miracles and plagues as metaphors for the obstacles all of us face as individuals and collectively on the road to freedom. Others UUs look at stories of miracles and plagues and feel a clash with our belief in the importance of reason, and the use of the scientific method. We need liberatory theologies that hold all of us, Theist, Atheist and Agnostic. While we can look for inspiration in the liberatory theologies of the world religions, it is time for us to articulate our own liberatory theologies.

When we read in the writings of the great Black liberation theologian James Cone that “The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land. [5]” We UUs feel all kinds of ways about the idea of a God who is active in history. But Cone was a powerful voice in his own context, and we need to be careful to honor the context and the tradition in which he wrote. As a white person, raised outside the Christian tradition, I try to be conscious of my own context, not appropriate the stories, songs and cultural traditions of the very peoples with whom I am co-conspiring for liberation. We carefully honor the wisdom of those traditions in our UU sources with respect, and within the context of their particular history and present moment. Which is why we UUs are being called to “articulate a theology of liberation” drawing from our own theological roots, speaking a language that is authentic to us. We need our own theology, or own language, symbols and stories to support our work for liberation.

Consider our UU principles; the first calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s a good foundation on which to build. Folks ask, isn’t that enough? How could racism or transphobia or ableism exist inside a paradigm where every person has worth and dignity? Yet we know, from the stories of people who are part of our UU movement, that all those oppressions continue to exist in our denomination. Because they are not superficial, these oppressions, they have deep roots in history and culture, and their roots pervade the soil in which our garden grows. Somehow we need a theology that makes acting to dismantle those oppressive structures, that makes pulling up those roots natural and inevitable. The word liberation has a call to motion in it. To do the hard work that needs to be done, our belief must be in a verb that overcomes quietism. This is why many churches have signed on to an 8th principle: ”journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” There are some good verbs in there: journeying, building, dismantling. Articulating our own liberatory theologies is about drawing down deep into our roots -- our history and traditions – and from that reserve of nourishment and wisdom, creating new growth that will allow us to flower into an anti oppressive world.

Our 7th principle is also a nourishing root of our tradition- “the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.” – This principle helps us remember that we are not talking about an individual struggle for the liberation of that person. Instead we notice that these oppressions are collective- they are also a web, woven through culture and history and our structures of power. This principle also gives us hope that our actions impact one another. That what we do here in our community tugs and pulls in other parts of the web, and that we don’t do this work alone.

Right now, at this moment in history, there is no question that we are being called to do many hard things, none harder than pulling out the roots of oppression so that liberation can flourish. We’ve been at this for a long time- UUs fought to end slavery, provided havens on the underground railroad, marched on Selma in the Civil Rights movement. Let us put into words the beliefs and values that supported us then, and will support us now. Let us reach down together into our roots and find there what we need for the liberating work ahead.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


 I want to tell you about a plant friend of mine. It was a little succulent I got last fall and over the winter grew so big and beautiful, that I had to repot it in a bigger pot this summer. When a squirrel knocked it over, I wasn’t too worried. I repotted the biggest part in a fresh new pot with plenty of room, and I took the smaller parts that had broken off and started them fresh in their own pot. I knew that when Succulents break, they have great resilience to start again.

The word resilience means to rebound, to bounce back, like when you bounce a ball. The ball deforms when it hits the ground, absorbing the energy of the drop or throw, but then it releases that energy, and bounces back into its original form. But living, growing things, like my plant friend, change and they don’t change back. The need to find a new form that adapts to changing conditions. When we talk about resilience, we think of something elastic like a ball, like a tree bending and swaying with the force of the wind. But Succulents deal with that force by breaking cleanly and easily, to reduce damage to the main plant. They have evolved to turn that breakage into a form of reproduction and are good at growing new roots wherever the broken pieces fall. 

But the squirrels weren’t done with their mischief yet, just a few weeks later I found this guy had fallen 6 feet and crashed on the ground. It must have lain there for a while, because a slug had found it and had taken big bites out of the leaves. It broke my plant lover’s heart to see a little plant, barely acclimated to it’s new pot, meeting with misfortune after misfortune.

When a plant has been through that much trauma, it seems like they go into shock for a bit. I notice they just stop growing for some period of time, perhaps orienting to their new reality, perhaps waiting to see what fresh mischief the squirrels and slugs may wreck, not wanting to use up precious resources until the coast is clear. It takes some time just to stabilize itself. Sometimes the outer leaves will die back.

This aloe was knocked over by the  the squirrels at my neighbor’s house knocked over. I’m nursing it back to health for her.You can see in this first photo,how these leaves are turning brown, and losing their plumpness. Plants have the power to move resources around, to let a leaf or branch die if there is just too much plant to maintain. When it does start regrowing, many plants put all their resources into regrowing roots, already rebounding before we can see any evidence. But soon enough the leaf closest to the core on a succulent fills in with plump green life, (hopefully you can see that in the second photo) ready to try again, carefully and cautiously, needing to grow without using up all their reserves.

 Other plants are resilient in different ways. Some plants will begin to frantically flower and reproduce when trampled, others will use their reserves to put on rapid growth. All living things are resilient, but not in the same way. Which is good. I wonder if you can remember a time in your own life when you have bounced back, remember what resilience looks like in your own life?

Right now I am hearing from my queer friends that they are exhausted. They are afraid that their marriages will be invalidated. Nonbinary friends are afraid that they will lose protections for their safety, for their jobs. I hear people of color saying they are demoralized that white people keep voting for candidates who actively support racist structures, or more overt racism.

So if you are a person with privilege, it’s time for us to step up. People with marginalized identities are exhausted. Immune compromised people need us. Over the coming days and weeks, look around you for the people who seem deflated, who are scared, who need to pull in their energy to regrow their roots.

Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, has spent much of her career working with “distressed populations including IV drug users and youth in foster care” [i] finding ways to help people be more resilient. She is concerned about the focus on individual resilience. Our society asks too much resilience of individuals; the system puts more and more stress on folks, more stress than a person should have to bear, sometimes more stress than a person can bear. Systemic forces put an unequal amount of pressure on some bodies, some spirits. Resilience must be collective when there are collective problems. It is up to us to change the system so that no one is under more pressure than they can bear, than they can rebound from.

Nkem Ndefo cautions; “We build this reservoir, this big wide lake of flexible strength, this capacity, and we use this capacity to change the conditions of adversity, to a system that doesn’t demand so much resilience. It’s nice to have, but that you shouldn’t always have to be digging into that pot.” (ends 26’23”)

Metaphorically speaking, just as no plant can survive in a squirrel superhighway, especially if they have been inappropriately planted in a pot with a narrow base. A broken and trampled living being needs time and a safe place to grow a new wholeness for themself, to bounce, maybe not back, but forward into fullness.

Life is tremendously resilient. I use my poor little plant as concrete proof that resilience is a great gift of living things. That’s why I talk about plants so often in worship, because when it can be hard to believe in something like resilience, it helps to see with our own eyes these ordinary miracles -- a ball spring back into its fullness, a plant turning broken pieces into a new and growing shape. If plants don’t speak to you, look all around and you will see life’s resilience. Now is the time to nurture our own resilience, as individuals, as a community, restoring our wholeness for the journey ahead.

On the Trail Together

When my husband and I moved to California in our 20s, we were amazed by the beauty of the landscape, and the mild weather, and were determined to get out into it. We were not experienced hikers, and had no idea, for example, how to read a topological map. On one particular hike, we chose the shortest, straightest path, which turned out to go almost straight up. The hill was so steep, I had to keep stopping to rest. We ran out of water just over halfway up the trail, but figured there would be some at the trailhead at the top. We kept thinking we were approaching the top of the hill, and several times we scrambled up an incline, sweaty and muscles burning, to find only another hill before us.

That’s how I have felt this week. I had hoped that, with election day behind us, we would have reached the summit of our journey, or at least a rest area with a water fountain. Instead, achey and sore from the road we have hiked so far, we see another hill in front of us. As we prepared worship for this day, we knew that no matter what happened, half of America would be angry and disappointed. The pandemic is swelling into its 3rd peak, and racism is still entrenched in our culture and institutions.

Friends, let us sit right down here on the trail, at the foot of the next hill to climb, and rest our weary limbs -- rest our weary spirits for a moment.

Sit right down on the earth who holds us. Rest into the gravity of this biosphere that is so heavy that it pulls us toward it. Have you ever had a small child crawl into your lap for rest and comfort? Or perhaps you were lucky to have such a lap to climb into when you were a child? Let yourself imagine now that the earth is such a lap, and we are just a handful of the millions of beings in our eco system tucking into her strength for winter.

Feel on your skin the air, the breeze that blows seeds and pollen to fresh new homes where they grow and spread. The subtle breeze that lifts the wings of birds, who are right now migrating thousands of miles to their seasonal home. Change sometimes happens at the speed of wind. A fresh breath is available even in this moment.

Take a sip of water, if you have some near. Let it assuage your thirst, feel that delicious smoothness -- grateful that we can relieve that basic need any time we choose. Let it symbolize our capacity to restore ourselves.

If you’ve lit a chalice this morning, gaze at that flame, or if there is a spot of sun out your window. What fiery power that sun has to warm our planet. What power fire has to transform fuel into heat, and the power of plants to turn sunlight into food for our biosphere. And there is a fire inside you- the fire that turns food into action, into change. The fire of your commitment, the fire of your spirit. Maybe it is low today, but it is burning still.

Now, check your metaphoric backpack. What provisions do you have? First, you have a community of people who care for you. Click over to grid view if you like, and gaze around at all those faces. If you were sick, here are people who would worry over you, send a card or a hot meal or a phone call. If you went to a business who discriminated against you because of who you are, as happened to some of our members just before I joined this church, here are people who would sit down with the manager, and make sure management knew it was not okay. If you couldn’t pay your elective bill, here are people who have already contributed to a fund to help you keep the lights on. Here are people who will listen to your journey, and wonder with you “what does it all mean?”

What else do you carry with you today, at this moment, and up the hill ahead? Look around the space you are in right now. What can you see that will support you on this journey? I hope that you have food in your kitchen, and running water, blankets for a cold day. Each of us has different resources unique to our needs and location. What resources do you see around you right now?

We pause now, just for a moment, assured that whatever lies ahead, we will climb it together.