What a month we have ahead of us! Some are preparing to greet friends and family they have not been physically near to in over a year. Many are struggling with all the factors that mean they still may not be able to engage in more in-person contact. Some are eagerly awaiting slower summer rhythms after the end of the school year. Yet others are not ready for the end of the school year! This church is studying and preparing for an inclusive multiplatform reentry and will soon rejoice in the ways we can begin to reconnect in person. We are also preparing to say goodbye, you and me, on June 13 after our last Sunday service together. Rev Alexa, our Pastoral Care minister will remain during July to provide two services and emergency pastoral care support. Despite preparing to miss you, both Rev Alexa and I join you in happiness as you anticipate the joy of welcoming a new minister in August!
And…it is not only this church that has a full June ahead! The entire Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is busy preparing for our annual conference and business meeting (a.k.a. General Assembly) during the last week in June. From June 15 through General Assembly, I will be busily working as co- Chair of the UUA Commission on Social Witness. Then, we will all get to share in some aspect of General Assembly, because Accotink UU will virtually attend the Official Sunday Worship Service of the Unitarian Universalist Association on Sunday June 27 at 10 AM on our regular Zoom worship link (coffee hour with only AUUC following worship). This is a phenomenal opportunity to take part in an incredible service a year in the making; a service that will be shared across the country with fellow UUs.
With all that arises in our collective and individual lives in the months ahead, let us remember to return to our center, to the heart of community. Last June, early in the pandemic, I reflected in the monthly blog about where the church lives. We were facing a longer shutdown, a growing pandemic, a deepening uncertainty. I wrote a short poem in that blog to remind us where the church is, and I bring it back, slightly updated, here:
The Simple Hook…Or: How to Catch a Church Community
It’s not the building
It’s not the ritual
It’s not the membership
It’s not the minister
It’s not the thing you worry about
It’s how you love
It’s how you love one another
It’s how you love the world together
That’s the only church
It’s that simple
You can’t get off the hook
on this one.
As I prepare to depart, and watch you sail along on your journey, I know without a shred of doubt that you will grow in beauty and in faith. Because you are you, and together you are all it takes to create the most beautiful things in this world. Just as you are, turning ever so slightly, with a playful smile brimming above your chins, toward one another with compassion and toward the world with a heart for justice.
Blessings on your journey,
“What’s your story?” It’s a casual question, but how it is asked, and how you answer, conveys volumes. We can ask this question lightly seeking a surface level response to some question—such as why someone arrives at a meeting or support service. Or, in a reassuring way we can ask the question with a careful curiosity, conveying an invitation to go deep and reflect. There is also the uninterested version laden with sarcasm. But no matter—all these ways to ask are no match for the answer.
It turns out we have a dearth of healthy examples in our culture for how to tell our authentic stories. We receive a deluge of stories throughout our lives, from story books to great works of fiction, movies, television, famous (and infamous) peoples’ social media feeds. But virtually all of these stories present one version or another of the single-minded hero, the protagonist who learns from experiences of life, the person who surpasses the masses or succumbs to the odds. Too often we get the formula: once there was…then this happened to the protagonist…then they learned/overcame/failed. It is as though no one else and nothing else moves and grows to make the hero possible. Notably absent from many stories are women, especially my elder generations who were taught that their stories were synonymous with and invisible to a man’s, a family’s, and a community’s stories.
Neither of these versions of “story” is completely untrue. We are wonderous individuals capable of incredible feats of free will. And, we are simultaneously only able to do and be and imagine ourselves within myriad other stories and histories. The person who tells the story of their growth ought also to tell how the other characters, the community, the world grew up with them and made their transformation what it was. Conceiving of ourselves as individuals who move through and achieve amidst an unchanging context is simplistic delusion.
The implications of such underdeveloped stories are far-reaching. Unable to tell our own personal stories healthfully embedded within growing communities and circumstances around us, leads to an overly individualistic worldview. It impedes our ability to conceive of ourselves as part of a world community and an interdependent web of existence. It curtails our capacity for empathy and encourages a commodification of experience and other people. It robs us of the conceptual language needed to be able build our way out of the climate crisis and systemic racism and sexism.
If you are still reading, your spirit is probably settling lower right now. Let’s follow it down to rest on the earth. Imagine you are sitting next to me on the rough ground beneath a tree. How about we stay here for a bit…there is shade, the weather is nice. Tell me, what is your story? Let’s skip the ‘once there was…then this happened to you…then you learned.’ Instead, I would love to bear witness to the places in life where you glided, and the places you sank. Gliding, who inspired you, who floated with you and goaded you on? Who was growing and changing and how did that inspire and challenge you? Who did you teach and what did they learn? Who and what were your teachers in life? Where did your community learn to grow that gave you joy, and where did it get stuck?
Our stories cannot stand alone because they are tangled up in all the other stories we encounter; they are knotted in our wider communities. Tracing the lines and loosening the knots, balancing attention to all the threads that touch our lives, we can tell and retell how we are woven together and finally come to know the fabric of our shared destiny.
With this approach in mind, and as we move toward our last few weeks with me as your minister, let us reflect together on our stories of the past two years. How have we tugged and stretched one another? What have we learned and taught one another? What has our growth made possible for each within, and those beyond, the congregation? Each to another, how have we changed our understanding of ourselves and our possibilities in this world?
Tell me, what is our story?
PS: Really, write your ideas down and let us share stories of the journey together on June 13!! How have we changed, encouraged, and inspired one another and together made new things possible?
It is spring! The season of rebirth and emergence is upon us, and I have been delighting in the gradual return to green. It seems that the pandemic has brought me closer to Earth’s rhythms, perhaps because I spend more time walking and watching outdoors: Less attention to traffic lights, other drivers, and stop signs, and more attention to bird sounds, footsteps, and the breeze.
This has me wondering, will my attention return to the old ways in a few months? There are certainly many things I will be glad to part with, such as squishy cucumbers from curbside pickup. Yet I must wonder at the silent change that has been stirring and emerging in my consciousness. My relationship to the world is becoming something new, truer to my deepest values. I don’t want to lose that.
Perhaps collectively, we are all shifting. Last summer many folks became more aware of police violence, and more, against Black people. We witnessed the rise in anti-Asian violence. Throughout the pandemic we have tried all manner of ways to stay connected—from online worship, open mic nights, small groups, to phone calls and email outreach from the Board, Membership, and the Pastoral Care Team. Underneath all this shifting care, what is emerging?
Here in these weeks and months as we look toward plans and hopes for reentry, let us pause to take in the fullness of what is quietly, underneath the surface, coming into being. Let us not brush aside this tender new growth amidst the dream of “old normal.” There are soft sprigs we ought to nurture. I want to stay close to Earth’s turning; I want to stay viscerally connected to protecting her season. And, this community wants to keep the new strategies and adaptations in care for one another. Let us notice all the new growths that have been quietly emerging, which speak to our deepest truths and our deepest longings. Keep space for these amidst the busy months of reentry. May we become a new, truer version of ourselves.
In light of last month’s theme of Beloved Community, let us begin by asking, what is our commitment to beloved community? Or rather, what commitment shall we make to beloved community? There is a big difference in these two questions. The first puts us in a defensive position; from this position one might say, “of course I am fully committed to it, it is part of our values and part of being a UU.” But commitment is not about what you value, and it is not a contract. …More on that in a moment. The
second question puts us in a position of active engagement and curiosity. Ah, this is a much happier frame of mind to act with creativity in this world! If we ask what commitments we ought to make to beloved community, we might wonder, “what can I do, what can I draw on, to pursue this ideal?”
Back to my proposition that commitment is not about what we value. It is related, for sure. We have other words and concepts for values, like principles and aspirations. Commitment, in turn, is about what we unite our lives around. Commitment comes from the Latin com (with, to unite) and mittere (to send, throw). Commitment is inherently about action, motion, and time—not static values.
Whereas beloved community is something we value, making a commitment to beloved community is about what we are committed to doing in order to help build it.
So this month, let us ask ourselves, what is it we are committed to doing to pursue our ideals? The Living the Pledge campaign is a wonderful place to begin to explore this question. Reflecting on adopting the 8th Principle is another (check out accotinkuu.org/racial-justice to find out more). Greening our building and grounds and our personal lives is another way to explore this question, as is supporting our neighbors at Halley Elementary through meals and other means (meal packs are active again so click here to sign up).
There are, of course, other commitments in our lives beyond commitments to building the beloved community. As your minister, I’ll admit I’m partial! Still, carefully discerning the question for all commitments is important. Commitment is not contract. Commitment is not value. Commitment is an action uniting your life’s resources toward something. So, it is a worthy question: What commitments shall you make toward what you value?
In the poem “One Love” shared for this month’s theme, Rev. Hope Johnson says, “We are one, A diverse group…Of proudly kindred spirits.” At this point in history, let us name the ways in which we are kindred. The forces of division are giving power to extremism, here and abroad. We must remember, each of us, the good that we are here on this earth to embody. We must name the things we will neither condone nor allow, and name the values of kindness and democracy that we live by and aspire to. Beloved Community will not build itself.
Surely, we might learn from history’s lessons. February is Black History month. But we should study Black history all year. Not only because American history is part of Black history, but because hope for our national salvation from tyranny is embedded in the hardest lessons that are recalled in that history. Lessons waiting like stones to be unearthed and rediscovered in order to restore, and make durable, the foundations of democracy.
We will not be able to move forward in efforts to counter violent white nationalist extremism without building on history’s lessons of racial discrimination, violence, and brutality in this country. Despite all the pain folded into that history, I am full of hope for healing because we have something the ancestors never had: their stories with which to build.
And so, we must listen to the past, openly and uncomfortably and with the goal not only of reminding ourselves how bad that was, but with the goal of discovering the keys to resistance and healing needed today. Beloved Community will not build itself, and we will not accidentally stumble upon it one day in relief. WE are the builders of tomorrow, and we are called now to find the stones and get to work. Let us build together.
As we part ways with 2020 and move with tentative hope into 2021, let us acknowledge what we have been carrying. It is hard to imagine a new year with creativity and fullness, whilst struggling against the burden of ‘what is.’ This year has brought fear, heartbreak, hope, and a rollercoaster within a rollercoaster of politics and pandemic—and pandemic politics! All the year-in-review articles, posts, and letters create a dizzying portrait of the pain, growth, and uncertainty in our lives. Let us hold this for a moment, with care and awe. 2020 was a year to behold.
You have each been through a great deal, and I honor all your pain, joy, loss, and growth.
And, then, when we are ready, let us be unstuck from this moment, unfettered by cynicism, with spirits unblocked. For this, we need two special ingredients that allow the stickiness of ‘now’ to slip into the ether of ‘back then.’
Personally, I do not like the word acceptance for this moment, because it is too close in kinship to giving up. I am not throwing up my hands and giving in to the pandemic. Rather, I am putting on my work gloves and getting ready to mold some creative future out of the glob of mud that 2020 has given.
The words I offer for our journey into 2021, which we will contemplate alongside imagination this month, are empathy and forgiveness. We will begin this month with empathy, and then explore forgiveness, as they make imagination not only possible but powerful.
And so, my minister’s blog this month offers a quest. Where does empathy allow your imagination to reach? What form of imagination is made possible after forgiveness has been unleashed?
We each need an anchor in these questions in order to move into 2021 with resilient spirits. In the monthly theme readings, I offer deeper exploration into these ideas. With this, I invite you to take a moment or two to explore your answers to these questions as we move on with courage into the mystery of 2021.
With warmth and light,
At this point in the pandemic, I would not have chosen stillness as our monthly theme. We seem to have that in plenty. Nonetheless, it reveals itself as wise choice. We are indeed facing a month of stillness, and more so because of the heightened restrictions all must endure to protect one another. My heartfelt prayers are reaching out daily to all the healthcare and other frontline workers who must place themselves at risk in order to care for, serve, and protect our communities. And I am sending prayers for all those who are ill or with sick loved ones, and those who have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to this unrelenting virus.
The care that is called forth from each of us is immense. Will we become exhausted by all the prayers, cares, and worries here toward the furious ending months of the pandemic? Will we become numb to its threat and too daring, engaging boldly with family and friends, to deadly effect? Surely not. We may be burdened, but we need not relent.
This approaching winter season, this month, this moment, is an invitation into dearly needed stillness. Some had hoped to find wisdom in the pandemic’s isolation. Few have yet emerged as sages. Here and now, an opportunity awaits; an opportunity to daringly stay in, boldly care, courageously dive into a few still and quiet weeks ahead.
No one knows all the treasures buried in your stillness, but there is at least one: the courage to do a hard thing in order to care for yourself, your dear ones, your communities. When you find that courage, you will have strength to share. As you seek that courage, you need to share the burden of loneliness and grief so that your burden becomes lighter. I am here for you, Rev Alexa is here for you, the Pastoral Care Team is here for you in this time. We are waiting to hear from you, to sit with you in virtual spaces. Waiting in stillness for you. When we share our strength and our need for help, we will have community to share.
No one knows what will happen in the days and weeks following the close of voting on Nov 3, 2020. There is an immense amount of uncertainty surrounding not only the outcome of the vote count, but the process for counting, certifying the vote, transfer of power if so voted, and peaceful navigation of social unrest regardless of the outcome. Yet one thing is certain; I am going to need all of you, you are going to need all of you, and we are going to need all our neighbors—those we agree with and those we disagree with.
I am certain that the work before us will continue no matter what emerges Nov 3rd. The work is healing. We are broken in this country: broken lines of communication, broken trust, broken hearted, broken bonds, broken future. We do not have to remain this way. The distance between people who vote for different parties is not what it appears. It is a distorted view of human beings that feeds political expedience.
Even when those we disagree with are actively hurting people and must be stopped immediately…. Even then we must not forget we are talking about human beings. Human beings with capacity for good and evil just like everyone else. It is a paradox to affirm the inherent dignity of those who are harming and those who are harmed, while courageously defending the right to peace, liberty, and justice for everyone especially those whose rights are being violated. It is a paradox we must hold well, especially now. We are not other, though we may well disagree with someone to the point of putting all our efforts into stopping the harm they commit. At every turn, with every word, we must recall our shared humanity and hold the paradox.
Amid all the uncertainty, this work will not leave us. Deep healing across the bonds that are frayed. And to do this work, we deeply need one another so that we can be vessels of healing. We need one another for encouragement, for care, for understanding, for help. I have heard some emotional reactivity among us in recent weeks. This is to be expected in a time such as this. Let us all take a breath between strong emotions and actions—a breath to remember we are beloveds. Let us remember to be patient with one another’s ways of processing stressful situations, and forgiving of ourselves and our community members. And above all, let us be humble and apologize once we learn that our natural reactions under stress have led to upset or harm.
There is immense beauty among us, and we will weather this time together to emerge as one. Let everyone, in our community and beyond, witness this truth and join the work of healing. Within the paradox of humanity, healing our nation begins with reaching out for support when we need it—reaching out to friends, to me ([email protected]), and to the Pastoral Care Team ([email protected]). Healing begins in the smallest places and grows from there. Let the healing begin.
Deeply listen to this.
The theme we have scheduled this month is a worthy theme: Deep Listening. Ministers and members from numerous congregations thought carefully and settled on this theme for October, knowing all we would be facing. It is a skill and a practice we will always need, deep listening.
But as I stare at this page to write to you about our theme for this month, I must be truthful with you. The theme I am living for this month is born of deeply listening to the turmoil, suffering, and fear of the people around me. The theme I am living is UU the Vote. UU the Vote is a national UU campaign to energize and enable people everywhere to vote in this election and always. It is everything we stand for: reason the vote, inclusion the vote, justice and equality the vote, care for earth the vote.
This is what I am putting all my spare time into right now. In the past weeks, our congregation has sent 1,320 post cards to encourage voting, a phenomenal effort on behalf of UU the Vote! I invite all to join as you are able in supporting this campaign through the final push. If you are short on time you can select a few minute to contribute to phone banking, or focus on the week of action Oct 21 – 27. Two of our congregants have supported phone banking are were pleased the have a good experience—no rude answers.
I cannot pretend we do not have mountains of work ahead of us after this election. We do. No matter how you slice this election-year pie, there are mounds of division, heartache, and injustice to heal in our nation. We will need deep listening to sooth this inflamed and precarious democracy. We are one, and this nation must find the unity that undergirds our differences, while also respecting difference and building trust. Yes, deep listening is dearly needed.
Yet now, right now, we need to ensure everyone is able and empowered to carry out their civic duty to vote. If there is anything at all you can do to help yourself and others to vote, I invite you to do it now. Check out the “This Week” email to find out how you can register and vote. This is a key moment in our timeline. We have great power of possibilities. We must give this moment in time our very best effort. Make this month your push-through month. Then in early November, plan rest, plan deep listening, plan the long hard work that has been needed for centuries to heal this nation. But for now, let us UU the Vote.
photo credit: Steven Depolo (https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/3020452399/in/photostream/)
Preparing for Ingathering
It is September, following the traditions of our church and many UU churches, I have been preparing for the ingathering service. Ingathering in a time of coming together after when for some feels like a summer break. Ingathering will look and feel different this year, for the obvious reason that we will not be together physically in the sanctuary. I have been reflecting on what this means for us, and what we need most for this ingathering. I have also been studying and discussing this with others. In the Worship Associates Committee meeting, we had a rich discussion about ingathering and the symbolism of the water communion, which is the ritual we observe during ingathering. You will have to join worship on September 13 at 10 AM to discover what we learned from one another, and what gems I have discovered in study!
In the meantime, I offer you this background story about the first Water Communion, courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association website (https://www.uua.org/worship/holidays/water-communion/original-water-ritual):
In 1980, two Unitarian Universalist women—Carolyn McDade and Lucile Schuck Longview—were asked to create a worship service for the Women and Religion Continental Convocation of Unitarian Universalists.
As they shaped that service, McDade and Longview wanted to create a new ritual “that spoke to our connectedness to one another, to the totality of life, and to our place on this planet.” They included a new, inclusive symbol of women’s spirituality: water.
They write: “Water is more than simply a metaphor. It is elemental and primary, calling forth feelings of awe and reverence. Acknowledging that the ocean is considered by many to be the place from which all life on our planet came—it is the womb of life—and that amniotic waters surround each of us prenatally, we now realize that [this worship service] was for us a new story of creation… We choose water as our symbol of our empowerment.”
The November service, held in East Lansing, Michigan, was called “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea.” As its creators, McDade and Longview enacted their ritual in the liberating space of a semicircle around a large earthenware bowl. They asked eight different women—each coming from distant places —to bring water, and they did: water from the Rio Grande and Assiniboine Rivers, rain water from Maryland, water from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and others were poured into the earthenware bowl as each bearer described its significance.
“As the ritual is continued,” says Carolyn McDade, “water deepens in meaning for us, just as water deepens during its long and winding journey to the sea.”
Many Blessings, and I look forward to seeing you online on September 13 for a much-needed ingathering and water communion.
The special humidity of August is something to behold. While July temperatures may at times rise higher, there is a still and sticky smugness to August that stays with you. The thick air embraces you precisely when your neighbors and friends are either hiding indoors or off to visit some cooler place. It is the month that gets me thinking about the cool rustling leaves of October. And the gatherings of November and December. Even amid the pandemic and looking forward only to virtual connections to celebrate holidays, I am eager for it. And so, I persevere through the August sauna.
If only our national, and global suffering were as reliably replaced by a new season. Our historical human progression may appear to be marked by overall improvement, but this is only apparent if we anchor the starting point of history at some point of greater depravity. The truth is, our movement along the arc toward justice is not a guarantee. We absolutely must persevere in our work to bend the long arc of history. One thing history teaches with certainty is that when we let up our effort to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, we backslide. At times we have ceased our efforts because we mistook one success for an ultimate victory. At other times we are simply exhausted from the toil of tending the arc.
Where are you in the struggle for justice? I wonder if you are tired. And I offer you a radical idea amid your exhaustion. Last week during my vacation, I took the kids out for a long walk in the woods. At one point, my middle child complained of exhaustion. “I cannot walk another step! I’m exhausted!” he moaned amid plodding feet. “But I think there is a bridge up ahead, don’t you want to see it?” I asked. His reply: “Oh, okay, then we will have to run.” And we did. We ran down the trail for several minutes to see the bridge, and then ran part way back too.
What a marvel, and what a lesson in this! He was exhausted from the same boring movement, trudging down the path. But with the gift of a new possibility, and a new way to move towards it, his spirit lifted and so did his feet. I wondered, how we might move differently through these hard days for justice. There are new opportunities ahead—new possibilities for justice we haven’t seen before. Can we allow the possibilities to inspire us to try new ways of getting there? And when we act in new ways for justice, might we also be restored despite the effort?
Today is cooler, thanks to the hurricane’s passing. But August’s full weight will return not long past Isaias. I’ll wish I could run through August and speed on to October. I cannot speed up the season any more than I can fast forward past the election or glimpse the other side of the pandemic out beyond that. Still, I shall persevere. Let us all persevere, finding possibilities to run toward, and a new and restorative way to move through this time.
In faith and love,
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!