Hope from General Assembly
Our congregation-wide theme this month is hope. Where are you finding hope these days? I recently asked a group of children with diverse gender identities (including transgender, genderfluid, non-binary, and cisgender), “what are some things that, if you notice them this month, that would give you hope things are getting better?” But as I asked, I felt a pain in my heart. What is giving me hope that they will inherit a more anti-oppressive future? What am I noticing that gives me reason to hope that people with privilege—including white, middle class, cisgender women like me—will be willing to release some privilege to save us all? In the end, I found hope in the answers from these children because as they spoke, they showed me that they could and did imagine a better way.
If we are going to find hope in this world today, it will be springing forth on the other side of privilege. There can be no more pretending individualism’s lie about privilege. We cannot accept that one person’s privilege has no impact on their neighbor. The virus has been a good teacher of interdependence, even if many minds are closed to the lesson. If someone chooses not to wear a mask because they desire to feel air move across their face more freely, then they may ultimately cause the deaths of dozens, or more. This is wrong. Likewise, if those who possess all the resources they need for human flourishing continue to pump millions into the criminal legal system while robbing neighboring communities of color of basic services for social uplift, there is something wrong. If one person accumulates riches while others starve, and we know our way of life depends on this dynamic, then something is very wrong, my people. Very, very wrong.
So, what gives me hope that there is some way out of this? It is not signs that things are already better, though I wish it were. Rather, it is in the uprising of people throughout our nation and world, who are saying together—this is wrong, very wrong, and we can imagine another way. And I am finding new springs of hope in our denomination, as I witnessed thousands gather to affirm what is just and good in two bold new “Actions of Immediate Witness.”
In the coming weeks, I look forward to sharing more from General Assembly: some things that I have noticed among UUs that give me hope, and some things that give me concern. But first, I eagerly direct your attention to two prophetic statements affirmed by our denomination. These two statements are called “Actions of Immediate Witness” and they represent a call and a guide to all Unitarian Universalists:
- Address 400 Years of White Supremacist Colonialism
- Amen to Uprising: A Commitment and Call to Action
As Unitarian Universalists and member congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association, we are called to head these words and respond with action. I invite you to reflect on these powerful words crafted by Unitarian Universalists who are also members of marginalized groups; Black, Brown, and Indigenous leaders and others. Witness these words voiced from the margins, rising to call us as a faith toward a collective vision of beloved community. What are these words calling you to do? I wonder what relief, inspiration, discomfort, or excitement you may discover in these words. I trust that if you sit with these, you find hope here, as I do.
With renewed hope in our shared faith,
A Simple Hook
As I write this reflection, the Board, Executive Committee, and I are still in deep discernment about when and how we return to the building and physical presence. These many weeks, I have been sitting in prayer and discernment with the holy on these questions.
Typically, when I consult with God in prayer time to try to discern what to do about this thing, or that matter, it usually goes something like this: “Hum, it really couldn’t matter less. Look here, at this thing hiding behind what you are asking about….. this is the thing to worry about.” Basically, God moves right past my little concerns and gets to the point of the matter that I was missing (or ignoring).
For better or worse, God has been consistent with my recent queries. And so, while reflecting on physical distancing and how to help the church adapt to virtual engagement for the coming year, here is what I gathered from my holy consultation, in the form of a poem:
The Simple Hook
It’s not the building
It’s not the ritual
It’s not the membership
It’s not the thing you worry about
Really, it’s not.
It’s how you love
That’s the only church
It’s that simple
You can’t get off the hook
on this one
This is a hard lesson. Especially for someone who so loves crafting meaningful worship and ritual (and who just recently spent many hours and resources studying this!). It is hard not to look at worship flow and to get excited as our attendance and membership numbers grow despite the pandemic. It is also hard to imagine that our church building is not, well, us. It is a beautiful building, and the woodwork, the quilts and weaving, even the quirks in the building all hold incredible beauty and dense, vivid history. I love all these things! And yet, I know God shared only the truth. I know it deep down, further down than my bones.
And I know you also share the loss in physical distance. The loss of not being together in our building or in physical presence. With physical distance, for some comes a deep strain on mental wellbeing. Many in our congregation and beyond need encouragement and support to help lift the weight of distance and provide sustenance in this time. With these challenges, it is possible to look beyond the thing we did before that was reassuring, and ask ourselves how we create that reassurance now amid physical distancing. If we release our hold on familiar ways of compassion, can we find new ways to be compassionate?
The UUA has provided guidance to congregations, encouraging them to remain in virtual engagement and avoid physical presence until at least May 2021, unless something drastically changes to make things safer. The reasons are many, but here are three key points: 1) the things we do in person are simply not worth risking any one of our lives to do so; 2) when we come together, we most likely create more cases of the virus, which means an inequitable impact on all front-line workers and vulnerable people who will then be even more exposed to the virus; and 3) by planning for a year instead of month-to-month, we can build the virtual infrastructure we need to sustain our ministries and focus on deeper needs in a time of physical distancing.
And so now I sit with all of this. The prudent guidance from the UUA, my love of each of you, and the truth that what we are, and what we can be in this world, is far more than our physical presence. What we can be, what the holy is always calling us toward, is to be a mighty presence of love.
While I assure you that I will continue to bring you my best meaningful worship and rituals, and along with our wonderful Building and Grounds committee will continue to care for the building, I must urge that we all look beyond the things we are not. Even as we love these things, they are not the church. Remember, we are still on the hook for the one thing we truly are as a church. For that, I invite us all to reflect on these questions: Right now, with physical distancing and a society in turmoil, how well am I loving? At this time and with whatever challenges are facing us and our world, how can we become even more loving to one another, more loving to our neighbors, and more loving toward future generations?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves. Yes, we can talk about who will volunteer for what service, and wonder what technology will allow us to do something better. We can wonder if distance will change our numbers (it appears not to be hurting them!), and plan for ways to meet in physical presence someday. But we must not allow these questions ever to obscure the one question we are still on the hook for: how well are we loving?
Let us answer this together, as hard as it is, as endless as it is, as creative as it is.
What Lies Beyond the Threshold
They say the times we are in are unprecedented, that this pandemic will change things forever. And it surely will. Yet, we cannot see what lies beyond the threshold at which we wait. There is a very good reason for that. We do not know what we are at the threshold of because it is not inevitable. We are in an intensely creative moment, full of possibilities. It is as though we are poised in a small high space with openings all around us. Each threshold is waiting for the world to fall into it, and together we have the power to help tip our world toward one threshold or another.
Some of these thresholds hold great promise: awareness of needs for equity and justice, a growing and deepening sense of commitment to one another, a desire to make our human societies fairer to one another and more sustainable for all life. Some of these thresholds are worrisome: failed safety nets, job loss and health threats among the most vulnerable. And with the perceived scarcity of resources, some are seeking a home for anger in the vein of nationalism and exclusionary rhetoric.
The threshold that opens to exclusion is deeply concerning. History has shown us that an angry and desperate population can latch onto exclusionary ideals, leading to heartbreaking human ugliness. Language that derides immigrants, racial minorities, and those experiencing poverty is dangerous and unacceptable. We know better. We need only remember how after WWII we collectively promised: never again. If ever there was a time to remember that no one must be excluded from compassion, that all are humans, and that everyone should both be treated with dignity and be expected to show kindness, now is that time.
As we wait, poised at the verge of many thresholds, let us lean away from exclusionary rhetoric. Let us lean toward the glints of love peeking through the open ways. Notice who is helping communities who are hurting. Seek to help those who are hurting, or seek help yourself when you need it. There are groups all around who are seeking a more just, compassionate, and sustainable way to emerge from all of this. Let us contribute to these openings.
We are indeed on the verge of many thresholds. Let us lean into the thresholds we long for.
Liberation From or With
Our theme this month is liberation. Liberation: a term that in this time, may conjure ideas of being liberated from isolation, liberated from pandemic, liberated from fear. But such liberation is folly. As many great prophets and teachers have shown us, we are caught in an inescapable web of interdependence. There is no liberation without interdependence.
But this is a hard concept for a society steeped in individualism—the tragic notion that the individual is the unit of ultimate worth to the exclusion of a collectivity. It is tragic because the concept of an individual who can act freely to claim their dreams is a beautiful idea nestled within an interdependent and communal web. Put simply, individual and communal are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other, and to attempt to do so leaves us impoverished.
This impoverishment is exactly what the current pandemic illustrates, with isolated individuals left to fend for themselves bearing the fruit of a society that has attempted to collect a wealth of individuals and defy community. The contours of this tragedy are knit in threads of people who work hard to provide food, care, and healthy environments but who have been left with no protection against this scourge. Other threads are frayed with fear and isolation, and only a few threads remain untroubled. The social fabric, which should hold us all, has gaping holes because we have ignored tending it.
It doesn’t need to continue this way, not for one moment more. There is a creative potential in this moment that can leverage us out of this predicament; we can change course toward collective liberation. We cannot be truly liberated without the creative power of individuals capable of acting within and with compassion toward others and with a caring concept of the whole. We cannot be liberated without a concept of the whole that can sustain basic care for all. We must find liberation with one another, all.
And so, this month, I invite us all to dive into a truer concept of liberation: collective liberation. It is an intentionally paradoxical concept that I invite you to contemplate this month. Won’t you join me?
The Beginning of Wisdom
When I was a child, at every birthday I wished for wisdom as I blew out my birthday candles. Well, wisdom and a pony, of course. And as I grew older, it became wisdom and world peace. it is still there hovering in each birthday wish. The need to sense, to deeply know beyond what knowledge tells us, to know what would lead to good or ill.
In essence, that is what wisdom is. According to one Oxford dictionary entry, it is “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” It is the ability not only to apply experience or knowledge but to apply it well.
And there is another aspect of wisdom that I believe I was yearning toward. The wisdom to which American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr eludes when he offered the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The wisdom of discernment. I watch my children cultivating this wisdom as they learn to distinguish the difference between wants and needs. Between things in their power to change (like walking versus driving, or buying less), and things beyond their immediate power (environmental degradation).
We need wisdom to know what knowledge to apply and when, to know what we truly need versus what we merely want, and to be able to apply our abilities to reach better ends. I offer a wish now for all of us as we enter this month exploring wisdom. We will be delving into the wisdom that comes from opening all hearts and minds to marginalized perspectives. We will witness knowledge of how our culture and society and business-as-usual contributes to evils that we disdain like racism and transphobia, even as we just explored the pain of ageism. We may experience sadness, frustration, defensiveness and more.
This knowledge, these experiences, will be new for many of us. And this same knowledge and experience will be old news and dusty heartache for many of us. No matter how experienced, or how new, we will all be called to new levels of discernment: want or need, courage or despair, forward or stagnation.
And my wish, my prayer, for us all is that we find the serenity to accept our errors and those of our society, that we discern the difference between the comfort we want and the courage we all need, and that we gain the wisdom to wield our knowledge and emotions to carve our courageous love in this wounded world.
I wish for this wisdom now, more than I ever have. Because year after year in this same birthday wish that has followed me for as long as I can remember, I have learned one thing. I am always at the beginning of wisdom. May we all be.
When I contemplate my inner resilience, I do not conjure ideas about staying the same. Instead, images of people helping one another dance before me. When I go deeper, my mind sends up ideas about care and responsibility. Why might this be so?
I do not want to be a rubber band. Do you?
By now, someone or some experience in your life has probably challenged the notion that resilience equals “bouncing back” and remaining unchanged. I offered the quote from Eric Greitens this month, because it articulates the challenging truth that we cannot return to the past. Resilience is not our capacity to stubbornly remain unchanged. Rather, it is our creative capacity to return to our core and recreate that in every new moment life brings us.
And so, how do ideas about helping one another connect to resilience for me? Because my core quality that I want to nurture and weave into the future; the one thing I want to keep alive from moment to moment and from challenging experience to challenging experience, is compassion. What sits at your core that you chose to bring forward, no matter what? Perhaps as you think about resilience this month, some image or idea will visit you. Ask yourself, what is this telling me about my resilience?
Although I do my best, I have limited power to control the whims of fate, be it health, politics, others’ hate or kindness, fortune, you name it. But whatever happens, I can return to my core, and ask myself “what is the most compassionate thing I can do now?” That is resilience, at least, it is when I succeed in answering that question!
And so, whatever comes your way, what do you choose to carry forward, what will you create with your one powerful story? I look forward to exploring this with all of you this month.
Integrity involves wholeness, a sense of internal consistency, and honesty. What do you imagine when you consider the concept of integrity? Who do you imagine? I invite you to reflect on this for a moment…
In your mind’s wandering, did you imagine that integrity must adapt and change over time? Consider this; if you act with integrity now, that action with integrity may very well change into a new action with just as much integrity after several more years of life experience. This is because experiences change us, we learn new things, the outside world changes, and integrity must be true to all of this. Thus, to retain internal consistency, honesty, and wholeness, the shape and form of integrity must change over time.
In the quote I offer for this month, the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons reflects on the covenants we make in Unitarian Universalist Communities: “It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.” Rev. Gibbons simultaneously invites us to recall covenant, revisit what we want, and face the challenge of change. Keeping covenant invites us out of self-comfort and into integrity with how we want to be in relationship.
What covenants, or commitments have you made with yourself? As a congregation, we have entered into a covenant as members of the Unitarian Universalist Association to promote and affirm our principles while drawing on and holding ourselves accountable to the wisdom in our sources. As members of this church, we uphold a congregational covenant with one another in the ways we will be together, supporting one another and this congregation in serving our mission as the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church.
At the beginning of this new year, I invite you to reflect on what you have said you wanted to do and be, as individuals and as a congregation. What may need to change and shift with new experience and a changing world? Is there something we need to remind ourselves of? Is there a new sense of integrity emerging in our lives that we need to be true to?
As individuals and as a covenantal community, may we always find the consistency, honesty, and wholeness that we need for who we are becoming.
I am in awe of the capacity for people I meet at Accotink UU to “try on” new and challenging ideas, to try new things. Yes, I experience awe when this happens! Awe is a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. What does it mean to experience awe in this everyday experience? It means appreciating how hard it is to remain mentally flexible in stressful times, and how difficult it is to have humility when someone offers an alternative view on things.
But deep down, I am allowing myself to feel awe because I believe this capacity for mental flexibility with humility and adaptability really is worthy of awe. Allowing ourselves to experience awe in the face of courageous mental flexibility honors the value and significance of this flexibility in our lives. So, I lift up our ability to welcome the new, to hear that we have made a mistake, to make amends.
This is awe-worthy, and deeply needed because of present challenges and opportunities. Challenge, yes. In an era of divisive politics and rising nationalism, we need more people who are willing to keep open minds.
But what opportunity we have! We need this awesome mental flexibility because we are also at a moment in history of great power and opportunity. We have the capacity for wider and deeper listening to groups who have been pushed aside in the dominant societies of the world. People of color, indigenous peoples, transgender and nonbinary people, and others are finally being heard in ways that allow all to witness many previously ignored truths. Truths that are telling us terrible mistakes have been made, egregious harm has been done, ongoing discrimination and destruction is hurting lives, spirits, and the planet.
This is where I experience the full sense of awe—reverential respect with wonder and fear. Will enough people possess the mental flexibility to hear, to witness, and to respond compassionately to it all? Will we be able to take in feedback even when it challenges our identities or our favorite narratives? And, will we then have the mental flexibility to find a new way to be in relationship, to make amends, and to move forward with more equity and justice into a more sustainable future?
May we continue to witness, to learn, and to try new things. And let us celebrate mental flexibility and humility, sit in awe of it, and wonder at what this world may look like in decades to come, if we all continue to nurture these gifts.
Attention to What, for Whom?
What are you paying attention to? What grabs your attention? What do you dwell on?
In my daily meditation practice, I have begun asking myself this question: whose needs am I paying attention to? In meditation, the mind naturally wanders. Where it wanders often shows what you are preoccupied with, or what you have forgotten (for example, that you forgot to put your sheets on to dry, which I thankfully remembered during this morning’s meditation). When meditating, it is helpful to simply notice when the mind wanders, and patiently to return to the meditation (the laundry can wait!). So, adding a question to meditation invites you to notice something about the wandering mind. Whose needs is my mind wandering toward?
This simple question is a powerful act of mindfulness that I invite you to explore this month. You can ask yourself the question at any moment of the day, during any activity. If you are reading or listening to the news, what draws your attention? Whose needs are being tended by that attention? You can even apply this question outwardly, to the news itself: Whose needs are the article, podcast, or newscaster paying attention to? And the flip side, who is left out?
I invite you to ask yourself this question in any mundane setting. Shopping: what am I paying attention to, and whose needs are being met? Driving: whose needs on the road am I paying attention to? Eating: whose needs are being met by this food choice?
Our minds, which contain our reason, hearts of compassion, and spirit, are our greatest gift. Let what we pay attention to, where we place our mind’s effort, be toward our live-giving aspirations.
Would you know great beauty if you saw it?
October 25, 2019
In preparing for November’s month on Attention, I came across this video of an experiment in which one of the world’s greatest violinists, Joshua Bell, performs in a subway for 43 minutes. Only 7 out of 1,097 people paused to listen.
After getting beyond my initial ideas about race and class bias, I turned inward and thought: “I’m sure I would have stopped to listen!” Then with a little more humility: “Well, gosh, I hope I would have stopped.” And finally, with honesty: “Wow, I must ensure that I pay better attention to any gifts offered, lest I snub anyone offering their art.”
I must wonder, how well will I actually live out this hope? Yet, I am hopeful because today I saw a Blue Jay.
As I got up from drafting Sunday’s homily, I glanced out my back window unconsciously. As I kept moving past the window into the next room, something registered: ‘there is a stunning display of blue and white on the railing outside!’ Ah, teacher of humility be praised. I softly moved back to the window and marveled at the Blue Jay for the few pretty moments I could, before they flew away into the secrecy of a tree.
May humility release me from the presumption of knowing, and honesty allow me to more fully be present to this tender world.
Where We Belong
This month, the congregation will have the opportunity to explore belonging in worship, religious exploration, readings, and more. In this month’s newsletter, you will find readings and words about belonging. May they inspire your journey. Here, I offer a reflection on what belonging means for me in Unitarian Universalist (UU) community.
My understanding of belonging has changed over my years as a UU. I once thought of belonging as based on sameness. I call it the “Sesame Street” version of belonging. For those who weren’t fans of the PBS educational program for children, Sesame Street used to feature a four-split screen with four children (sometimes four objects) for a brief spot on the show. Invariably, one child would be doing something different from the others. The narrator would ask “which one is not like the others?” That would be the one that didn’t belong. Carrying this concept of belonging with me, I believed I belonged in a UU congregation because my beliefs and values were like those of others in the congregation. (At least, I assumed they were. I didn’t ask everyone!)
Over the years, I have gotten to know UUs from so many different places, paths, and perspectives, that I no longer harbor the illusion that we are like-minded or like-experienced! We are forever uniquely different from one another. Not only that, I have seen people disappoint one another with different beliefs and perspectives. With such rich diversity, and openness to different, I expect this type of thing will happen again.
Yet, I am even more convinced we belong together than I was when I believed we “matched.” This is because I have learned that belonging together does not mean we agree with, or are similar to, one another. Rather, we belong together because we join in a common longing. This is fitting, since the word “belong” comes from two roots, to be, and to go along with. Together, we are going along on a journey toward our longing, which is expressed in our mission:
AUUC is an open and nurturing community of faith. We foster each individual’s spiritual journey, and we share common values while honoring a diversity of beliefs. Together, we cherish our connection to nature, and we act to transform our world into a more embracing and just community.
We need not be like one another to strive together for this mission. We need not be like one another to care for one another. Indeed, part of our mission is to be different while striving together to promote our common UU values and to transform our world for justice and compassion. May we all find belonging here.
Greetings and welcome to each of you! I have had a wonderful first few weeks with the Accotink UU Church. As in many churches, August was a month of planning projects, retreats, special events, and worship services. What an exciting year is unfolding! This community can look forward to opportunities for meaningful rituals and worship, social justice impact, fun intergenerational events, engaging leadership, connection, good food, and more. You can expect good things this year. And even in this busy month, you have invited me into more than planning. Through conversations, visits and social justice action, you have shared visions and fears, dear hopes and past frustrations, joys and sorrows. And those who could not be here have also been part of these days. Many who were out of town were zoomed into meetings or consulted for wisdom, and many who are no longer with us were remembered in conversation. Each experience has brought a blessing to my early days as your minister.
And this, for me, brings joyful expectation. Joyful expectation is open to the possibilities that unfold in community, not grasping at plans. It is seeking places to celebrate, not demanding perfection. I am finding joyful expectation here because this community has shown thoughtful care for one another. Because of this, whether all our plans go off smoothly or hit a few snags, I have faith we will find blessings to celebrate all along the way.
So here’s to joyful expectation as we launch a new year and a new ministry! Whatever challenges, joys and sorrows we encounter, let us encounter them together and with care and thoughtfulness woven throughout this community. May we find joy in the year ahead!