Monday, February 23, 2015

I am White and Why It Matters

I preached this sermon on Sunday February 22, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story:  The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans by Johnny Valentine
Reading: An excerpt from Dear White America by Tim Wise

But before we go any further, I realize that many of you reading this letter may not be comfortable being addressed in the collective sense—as white America.  While we are quite used to referring to black folks and other people of color in terms of their group identity, we insist on referring to ourselves individually, almost as if to suggest that we lacked a racial identity, or that if we possess one, it contains no relevance to our lives. “I’m not white,” some of you may say “I’m just an American.” Those are easy words to mouth when you’ve always been able to take your Americanness, your citizenship and your belonging for granted. Or better still some say, I’m not white, I’m just Bill,” or “Suzie” or “Tom” or “Mary” or whatever one’s name may be.
And yet although we may prefer to deny it, I know that there is such a thing as White America. I know it because I am white myself, and have lived a life that has been intensely racialized. It’s an experience that I doubt seriously is mine alone.  From where I grew up, to the schools I attended, to the jobs I had, to the way I have been treated by authority figures—be they teachers, employers or cops—most everything about my experience has been at least partially (often significantly) related to my racial identity.  So even though everyone is different, being white in America has meant something, just as being black, Latino, Asian or an indigenous person has meant something.  History happened and it matters.

Like Tim Wise, I am white and that still matters. As much as we may hope that it doesn’t, the reality is that my life is shaped by the privilege of having been born with white skin. Unitarian Universalism, despite the numerous efforts in the last decades to become more multi-cultural, more welcoming to people of color is still an overwhelmingly white religious community.  We here at the UU Congregation of the Outer Banks are no different - we are an overwhelmingly white faith community and that matters.

Now some of us may be uncomfortable with all this discussion of whiteness, of racism.  That is understandable - it is not a comfortable topic.  One of the reasons I appreciate Tim Wise so much is that he speaks a great deal to liberal white people who see themselves as allies of people of color.  He calls upon us to be better, to do better and most of all to acknowledge that race still matters.  I know many people in this room have been allies, who have worked on behalf of civil rights.  Yet we may still be uncomfortable with discussion of race or thinking of ourselves as white. After all we don’t have to think of ourselves as white - as Tim tells us in the reading we can be known by our individual names or as American.  No one questions whether we are here legally, whether we are citizens, whether we have a right to vote, drive a nice car, be in any particular public space.  White is normal, it is average, it is what we know.  Because it is so normal, so average, it is easy for us as white people to assume that if it is true for us or works for us, it works the same way for everyone.

I cannot tell you exactly when I realized that I was white - I was young.  I was born after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had been passed, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when I was still a baby.  I started school in the heat of bussing.  I only attended one year of public school  I grew up in the suburbs of California, eight and half years in Southern California and then the rest in the San Francisco Bay Area where my parents, my sister and her family still live.  

I heard my parents talking about bussing and schools. Many elementary school children were being bussed an hour and half to two hours to school. They had to be at bus stops very early in the morning and did not get home until late in the afternoon. Whether or not a child was bussed was a random assignment based on birthdays.  Many families, white families, sought to get their children into my Roman Catholic school - to the point that they closed the waiting list and limited enrollment to members of the parish.  I remember thinking that it wasn't right to bus children so far to go to school and that what would happen if a child became ill during the day and needed to go home.  My school was all white, there was no diversity. Somehow even from a young age I knew there was something not quite right with a school, a community that looked so much the same. Maybe it was because of another formative story. My great-grandfather, Manuel Sequeira.  Manuel immigrated to America from the Azores in Portugal.  He learned English and entirely lost his accent, he even called himself Frank Smith.  One way to describe this story is that my great-grandfather made himself white.  When he went to propose to my great-grandmother, Mollie O’Connor, he had to tell her that his name was really Manuel Sequeira.  My grandfather lamented that they were never taught Portuguese because it would have helped him with Spanish.  It was always a bittersweet story - on the one hand a story of the successful immigrant, the great American melting pot and yet on the other hand so much was lost not just the language.

I took my first formal anti-racism training at my first job with Catholic Charities. We did an anti-racism training by the Anti-Defamation League and they talked about systemic racism--that as a white person in a culture and system that privileged whiteness that I was a racist - not because I chose that, not because I wanted to be but rather the color of my skin, my whiteness gave me privilege that others did not have.  It made sense to me - racism was not just about personal prejudice but about the systematic ways our government, social, education, health structures privilege those who are white. 

While without a doubt we have made a great deal of progress from the days of slavery and the days of Jim Crow, yet institutions do not change easily or readily.  Systems that were set up with one set of assumptions do not adapt well.  It is not just a matter of add people of color and stir.  Access is not enough; laws are not enough; what is needed is a change of hearts and minds.  That change begins in part with we who most benefit from the system acknowledging that we as white people are privileged and these systems work for us.  When the systems and structures change; when we are no longer at the center; that our privilege may have been displaced - it is uncomfortable, we can feel like we are losing something; it can feel like our world is falling apart. Yet for the sake of the very lives and well-being of people of color - we who are white must be made uncomfortable.  This is not just for their sake but for the sake of all of us.  True justice, true well-being knows my own well being, our own well being is intrinsically tied to the well being of others. 

Often white privilege manifests itself like it did in our story today.  The Duke wants to feel important. So he begins with not allowing anyone but him to have the jelly beans - he begins with a concern about scarcity - what happens to me if we run out of jelly beans. It really doesn't matter if there are enough jelly beans or not, when a person feels a scarcity of something no amount of presentation of the facts can change the fundamental sense of scarcity because it is not about the jelly beans.  Then the Duke sees a concern - the children are being disrespectful and he decides it must be the books they are reading so he begins banning books.  Finally the Duke, drawing on his own experience, says I had 1 mom and 1 dad and I turned out great that must be how it is for everyone.  So let’s make sure everyone turns out great by insisting that they have the exact experience I had and banning anything different. That is how privilege operates - it operates often with good intention with terrible impact. That is why it is so critical to understand that our experience of white people in this country is not the experience shared by people of color.
Back during the Presidential election of 2012, a student of color at William and Mary was excited to be voting in her first presidential election. She posted on Facebook that she had her 2 forms of id ready and no one was going to stop her from voting.  Her post reminded me of the excitement I had while at Georgetown and getting ready to vote in my first Presidential election. Yet for me I never worried that someone would question my right to vote, would require that I provide 2 forms of ID to prove I was eligible to vote.  Same event - first time voting in a Presidential election and yet two different experiences.  She is no less qualified to vote than me except the color of her skin will cause her right to be questioned.

This isn’t 50 years ago, this is 2 years ago.  The situation is worse now with states passing strict voter ID laws, limiting early voting and making it more difficult for people, specifically people of color to vote.  It matters than I am white because the reality is that no one will question my eligibility to vote.
Over and over in every area of life - education, work, housing, government, health, religion - race makes a difference.  Race plays a role.  So what are we as a liberal people of faith to do?  What is our response? Does our faith have something to say?

Yes it does. It says we must be willing to wrestle with our own story of being white in America today. It means understanding how being white shapes our experience and attitudes.  That way we can open ourselves to other narratives, other stories. We can learn to suspend judgement. We can listen to the stories of people of color and not immediately jump to “that can’t be true” “that can’t be the norm” - we can stop and listen and consider what if it is true; what if it is the norm.

As people of faith, of a welcoming, liberal, free faith, we must open ourselves to new information.  It is not about guilt and feeling bad - it is about using our critical mind to examine our own assumptions and privilege. As liberal people it can be easy to pat ourselves on the back and say “well I am not like that person or that group over there who has no understanding of racism.” It can be easy to rest on how far we have come - yet it is also dangerous.  We may not see how we unintentionally perpetuate racism.  Good intentions are not enough, we must become aware of the ways we impact people without realizing it. When we ask the person of color to speak for all people of color. When we make broad generalizations of people of color. When we tell people we don’t see color - because when we say we are color blind that we don’t see color then we are denying both our unearned privilege and the reality that we live within a system that continues to see color. When we dismiss the anger and pain of people by saying that we don’t want to hear it, or it makes us uncomfortable or that they need to “let it go”.  Our faith calls us to be uncomfortable.

In 2015 it still matters that I am white. It matters that most people here are white.  It matters.  It matters that most of us will not worry that our children will be assumed to be criminal, to be suspect and even harmed by law enforcement … we assume that our children will be given the benefit of  the doubt … friends, in our country today, that is privilege. We may not like that it matters. We might prefer a color blind solution that creates a notion of oneness and therefore sameness.  We may want to say that Dr. King’s dream of people being judged on the content of their characters than the color of their skin is the reality because of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Act or the fact that we have an African American in the White House but the reality is that our very broken world judges people of color to be less than white people. As a white person I can use my privilege to join with with other white people like Theodore Parker, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Sarah and Angelina Grimke´, Tim Wise, who did and are fighting for a more just, more whole community.  The work is not yet finished, the dream is not reality, and it may not come to fruition in our lifetime and undoubtedly we will make mistakes, we will be uncomfortable, but that is no reason to stop.  I will close with the words of James Baldwin as Tim Wise does in his book:

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always know it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.  And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free--he sets himself free--for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Valentine's Day Reminder

Hello all,

As we get ready to celebrate Valentine's Day here in the United States I wanted to repost this sermon from February 2014.  Valentine's Day is a day dreaded by single people and couples are faced with undue pressure to make this one day a special day always to be remembered.  Personally my favorite memories of Valentine's Day are from helping my daughter fill out Valentines for classmates and my grandmother Mary sending me a box of blank Valentines for school when I was a child.  We need the reminder the romantic love is not the end all and be all of existence. Single people can and do live amazing fulfilling lives, some raise children and some don't and we need to stop the Noah's Ark two by two image as being the best and only way to be in relationship.  On this Valentine's Day let us remember our friends and community that are important pieces to an amazing fulfilling life.

Happy Valentine's Day and may you celebrate all the amazing ways we can love and be loved!

PS I am pleased to say that since I have preached this sermon, marriage equality has come to Virginia and to North Carolina where I currently reside.

I preached this sermon at the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula. I had previously preached it back in 2010 so it has been updated and revised for a new congregation and a new year!  Enjoy!

First Comes Love, Then Comes Justice: 
Re-Imagining Love and Marriage
February 9, 2014

Text: excerpt from Carter Heyward's Our Passion for Justice
Story: Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein

I have to say as I begin this sermon that this is not an easy sermon to bring to you.  Not because I don’t have plenty to say on the topic – I have more than enough to say.  It is because I stand before you as a queer person, in a same-sex relationship for the last 20 years, who is legally married although that marriage is not recognized in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is almost too personal, too close to home.  Yet I hope this sermon is not a typical support of same-sex marriage, making the case that queer people and queer couples are just like everyone else and therefore deserving of their civil rights. It is my hope that I will raise some questions I don’t see being addressed in our current discourse on marriage or our popular culture’s notions of marriage. 

I use the word queer for myself and to talk about the wide and diverse world of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.  It is not a word that is universally accepted and used.  I use it because it allows me to have my identity not limited to one particular box, one particular identity.  I use it as a member of this wide and diverse community, knowing that there is not universal agreement as to its usage. 

Love and marriage are of course on our minds – how could they not be.  It is almost Valentine’s Day and same-sex marriage is definitely in the news – whether the recent cases here in Virginia, or Utah or Oklahoma.   Let us also not forget the attention on Russia during the Winter Olympics and Russia’s vehement anti-gay laws – banning even the discussion or symbols of LGBTQ equality.   Just this weekend the Justice Department announced that for federal programs and benefits married same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residence, will be treated the same as heterosexual couples. Screaming from television, radio, stores, and restaurants – everywhere we are hearing about love – hearts, chocolates, red, and pink are everywhere.  Then we also have the anti-Valentine’s celebration – mostly marking break-ups and betrayals, the loss of love, the absence of love, the horror of being single and alone on this particular holiday when the world seems to be made up of happy couples.  Yet what is wrong with this picture?  It tells us that we are all embarking on Noah’s Ark two by two.  One may ask what is so horrible and awful about being single?  Most of us rationally thinking about it would say that there is nothing horrible or awful about being single.  Yet our culture’s obsession with coupleness often sends the message that it is better to be in a relationship – any relationship – than to be single. 

Our current cultural mores teach that the hardest part about love and marriage is finding that one perfect person. Once of course the person is found, the perfect wedding day will commence and they ride off into the sunset perfectly happy and content.  It is all about the courtship, the beginning of new love.  Nothing about what happens after the cake is eaten, the last notes of music from the band have faded away, friends and families have gone home and the couple is left to figure out how to spend the rest of their days in wedded bliss.

Those of us who have been in a long-term relationship know that the real work, the hardest part is how to remain in one’s relationship after the initial bloom of romance fades.  As one blogger put it, there is no Hallmark card that says “I love you so much that I will endure you” and yet much of long-term committed relationship is learning to endure the other.  Learning to hang in there when it might be easier to walk way; learning to stay even when my personal needs for intimacy, connection and support are not being met – that is the work of long-term committed relationships, because even in the happiest, the most healthy of relationships there will be times when one or both will not be getting all or even some of their needs for intimacy, connection and support met. Marriage requires commitment and some hard work.  Yet this commitment and hard work has its own joy and reward – one not often seen in the movies, television, or books.  Leo Tolstoy in one of his novellas, has his character describe this joy and reward this way “That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation for a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.” Commitment and endurance have their own joy and happiness that is often quieter and less visible than the exhilaration and giddiness of new love.

Our common messages about marriage and this extends into our work for marriage equality is that marriage and romantic love are the best and primary ways to meet our need for connection and intimacy; secondly, that it is up to individuals to find their one true love and figure out how to make it work; and, finally, love and marriage are individual rights and choices and the community, including faith community, has little or no role there.  If a marriage succeeds or fails it is the sole fault or responsibility of the couple.  I want to challenge these assumptions and say that our work for marriage equality, could if we gave it a chance, provide an opportunity for us to re-imagine love and marriage.   As Carter Heyward says in our reading, love is not just a sentimental feeling, that love makes justice, makes righteousness.  This notion is sorely lacking in our current cultural messages about marriage.  I also want to say it is missing from our faith communities – including our liberal Unitarian Universalist faith communities.

Our work for marriage equality is predicated on the notion that same-sex couples are just like heterosexual couples – that gay and lesbian couples just want the same things we all want – to be happily married – so let us open up civil marriage – and please note how clear we are that we are talking about civil marriage – to same sex couples – not to everyone but to same-sex couples.  Now on the one hand there is nothing wrong with this.  It makes good politics, it makes good bumper stickers like “Civil marriage is a Civil Right”.  But I also find it flawed and problematic.

For one thing it does nothing to challenge the inherent heterosexism in our culture or its obsession with coupleness as the primary and best means for meeting our relationship needs.  Is it really?  Is marriage truly the best way to meet to our needs for intimacy, sharing, support?  We put a lot of pressure on our romantic relationships and I think that is why so many of them end.  They just can’t support all the pressure we put on them – they are supposed to meet our needs for a best friend, someone to hang out with, someone to help pay the bills, live with, run a household with, raise children with, lover, partner, companion.  Whew..I am tired just thinking about it.

What if we removed some of this pressure from our romantic relationships?  What if we encouraged and modeled networks of relationships?  That people had not just spouses but friends and communities.  What if our faith communities became places that met some of these needs and supported life-partners as they worked to be partners and lovers who are building lives, homes and families?  Our faith communities could become antidotes to isolation, antidotes to having to do it all on one’s own.

Heterosexism, is the ism in our society that demands that we all conform to heterosexual norms  - opposite sex marriage, appropriate gender roles for men and women and valuing the nuclear family over all other family structures.  It is often hidden and unseen – much like racism and sexism.  It is not the fault of any one individual – it is a system.  It is a system that permeates into the personal aspects of our lives on a nearly daily basis.  How many forms do you fill out that ask if you are married or single? Every time I encounter a form that asks me if I am married or single I have to stop and think about my answer.  Who is asking?  Am I “allowed” to say that I am married?  When am I allowed to claim that identity?  When can’t I?  Simply granting me a civil marriage license has not ended the regular reminder that my relationship, my family is less than the idealized heterosexual nuclear family.

Yet our current debate over marriage equality does very little to disrupt notions of heterosexism  Our current marriage equality movement only asks that same sex couples be allowed to participate more fully in the heteronormative culture by granting those rights tied to civil marriage to same sex couples.  Now don’t get me wrong these rights are important and numerous.  These rights include tax filing, inheritance, hospital visitation, end of life decisions, burial. Truly life and death situations.  Yet I must ask why are these rights tied to marriage?

The marriage equality movement argues that lesbian and gay couples are just like and just want what everyone wants – heteronormative marriage.  Like in our story, it is allowing same sex couples to do things just like everybody else!  Really?  Is that really all queer people and queer couples want?  We want to be just like everyone else?  How limiting!  If the scope of our vision is only to have marriage equality, then our vision is too small.  It is not truly just. For a system that grants 1400 rights to people because they are married means that those rights and benefits are not available to those who are not married – queer or straight.  It continues to privilege one form of family over all other forms.  It also means that queer people and queer families have to make sure they act and look like straight people and not be “too outside” the norm.  Queer people are asked to sacrifice what makes them special in order to be safe, in order for some degree of acceptance.

I also am deeply trouble that our marriage equality debate has been limited to civil marriage.  Again this is a political strategy – the polls tell us it will play well with that average Jane or Joe out there who is ambivalent about this notion of extending heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples.  Don’t bring religion into it!  And we as a faith community, as a religion have bought into this hook, line and sinker.    I expect more. For my religious community, my liberal religious community – all of you and other Unitarian Universalists around the country have said – you are welcome here – you are seen here.  Yet the best we can fight for is civil marriage?  Let me tell you, I was married for twelve years before I had any civil marriage.  My marriage is not more “real” now because I have a civil marriage license than before.  We have been blessed with religious communities that have blessed and supported our relationship throughout our years together. If we are going to fight for marriage equality – than we must claim our place as people of faith who bless and sanctify the relationships of same-sex couples and families.  We must claim our religious voice!  So when you go to the courthouse in Newport News this week, go as people of faith!  Be proud that you are there as Unitarian Universalists!  Let people know that you can be a person of faith and queer person and queer ally!

And this comes back to how we as liberal religious people have bought into society’s notions of what marriage is and should be.  Oh we will host, bless and officiate at wedding ceremonies for same-sex and opposite sex couples.  We pride ourselves on our long history of doing so – and yes that is something to be proud of.  But rarely do we teach people in our faith community what a healthy relationship is or looks like, how to sustain in the long run and what role faith may have in their relationship.  Carter Heyward tells us that we are not automatic lovers of anything – ourselves, others, God.  We must chose to love and to chose and to chose wisely means there are things to learn about love.  Don’t we as a religious community have an obligation to teach about love?

Carter Heyward tells us that to love is to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. It is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family.”  What if a question for all couples is how will your love, your life together help heal a broken world?  What if we put justice into the mix?  How would that reframe our notions of love and marriage – if marriage was as much about justice as it is about love?  Now I am not proposing that we add more thing to the list our marriages are meant to carry – but how does it reframe marriage if justice is brought into the mix?

Well for one thing we cannot make justice on our own – justice making is community work.  We all need to know that we are not in it alone – couples and families need to know they are not it in alone.  Queer people and couples in particular, need to know that they are not alone – for in too many cases – families, friends and religious community vanishes when one utters the words “I am queer; I am gay; I am lesbian; I am bisexual; I am transgender.”  One of the gifts of the queer community is how it has created its own structures, organizations and families to support those who have lost so much by coming out.  What does the queer community have to teach about what makes a family? What do the same sex couples in our community have to teach us about how to create new models for intimacy?

As people of faith I call upon us to ask to the question what is marriage for?  Who is it for?  What if marriage was not the only way of creating a family? Again what about single people?  What about those who have no interest in marrying?  What about those who live together in long-term relationships but never marry – is their relationship less then?  What might they have to teach us?  What does it mean for us as a religious community to bless and affirm marriage?  Does our obligation end once the couple is off to the reception and have left our doors?  Is there something more?  What about those who want to form a family with more than two adults and some children?  What about blended families who chose to live together?  What about multiple generations in one household?  Or families that chose to live together communally?  What do these households have to teach us about commitment, marriage and family?  What about couples who do not have children?  Does justice demand that some of these federal and state benefits be extended to families beyond the nuclear family?

To make love is to make justice Carter Heyward tells us.  To make justice is to participate in the healing of a broken world.  This congregation and other Unitarian Univeralists have said that we are “Standing on the Side of Love.”  To stand on the side of love is to stand for justice and heal a broken world.  The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is not just about securing civil marriage for same sex couples but rather to stand for justice for all sorts of families who face injustice.  It is to stand for immigrant families facing deportation and separation.   It is to stand for families who struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

To stand on the side of love means our vision has to be bigger.  We have to re-imagine love and marriage for our own time.  We need to expand our notion of who or what is a family. 

To stand on the side of love is to stand with queer people – people who do not fit into our normative notions of gender – who defy the gender binary.  It is to stand with queer youth who make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless youth population. It is to learn about the queer homeless youth here in Newport News and Hampton Roads who have few if any services. It is to stand with homeless families in our community who cannot on their own secure a safe and warm home for themselves and enough food to eat.  It is to demand an end to favoring heteronormative marriage over all other types of relationships.  It is time for love that goes beyond chocolate and hearts – but rather opens each of us to the suffering of the world and to do what we can to heal it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Our Passion for Justice

I preached this sermon on Sunday February 8, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Reading: excerpt from Our Passion for Justice by Carter Heyward

Love, like truth and beauty is concrete.  Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling, not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward."  Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies.  Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth.  To make love is to make justice.  As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk.  People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians, and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience.  I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

For this reason loving requires commitment.  We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God.  Love does not just happen.  We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of deity called "love."  Love is a choice--not simply or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.  Love is a conversion to humanity--a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.  Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.

Our Passion for Justice

This month we are focusing our worship on putting love into action.  Carter Heyward in our reading today states that to make love is to make justice.  I have in the past used this reading in a sermon on marriage and justice for LGBTQ persons and it was one of the readings Donna and I chose for our wedding.  Heyward tells us that love is a choice, it is a choice to be present with others.  She reminds us that love requires work and commitment.  Contrary to our cultural images of love as a feeling, that we fall in love or in the words of a current pop song “the heart wants what it wants” – love requires far more than this.  Love requires us to risk, to get hurt, to say I am sorry and to say I forgive you.

Our work for justice requires commitment, endurance and love.  For our justice work to be both effective and sustainable it must come from love.  While it is tempting to come to hate and maybe even despise those who oppose the work for justice, hate cannot make justice. Hatred consumes a person and we cease seeing the other person as a human being, as worthy.  Ends can be seen as justifying means and our vision for justice can cease to include everyone.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

The civil rights movement was grounded in an inclusive vision of equality and justice, it was grounded in love.  The principles of non-violence were not only practical and necessary, they grounded the movement in love. Not in a sappy, sentimental love – no one was asked to like their oppressors.  Rather oppressors were seen as flawed humans, that could be won over and that the full vision of the civil rights movement was inclusive and universal – it included the oppressor.  It was also not a love that excluded anger and outrage.  Oppression is cause for anger and anger is not opposition to love. Rather love calls us to use anger and outrage for the purposes of justice.  While it is possible as Yoda tells us in Star Wars that anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering, anger channeled into resistance, into risk for justice can also lead to love, and lead to justice.  Those putting their lives on the line for justice are angry and they are outraged, yet they pour that into their work for justice, into a fight for a better world.  When we see the anger in communities like Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, Florida; anger that young black men are being killed by the police that are there to protect and serve we are seeing them pour that grief, anger and outrage into a demand that we do better.  It is a demand to be seen and heard through peaceful protest, through the media, by refusing to remain silent, by making it clear that this is not an acceptable way to live.  They put forth a vison of a world, a society that is beyond what we have now – it is imagining and working to bring in a world transformed, a world made new.

As allies in the work of justice, particularly those of us who have privilege – whether the privilege of white skin, being male, heterosexual, educated, with economic means – it is imperative that we not dismiss or diminish the anger and outrage of those who are oppressed particularly when we get it wrong.  Being an ally is to love – it is to risk and resist and it is to know that sometimes we will make mistakes.  Yet we have to be willing to endure the anger that may come when we are confronted with our privilege.  We have to be willing, to be courageous, to be loving enough to listen, to remain in relationship, to risk being hurt if we are truly to be effective allies and justice makers.

I know for myself, I worry about getting it wrong, about saying the wrong thing.  I worry that I will again assume that what is true for me, privileges that I take for granted are not true for everyone.  I know that too often I do play it safe, staying quiet, taking my cues from others in order to not say or do the wrong thing.  I step back from being a partner in the dance of life in order to stay safe.

As Donna spoke to us about her experience on Living Legacy pilgrimage and walking on the Pettus Bridge, hearing the stories of those who were there 50 years ago, she talked about how some on the pilgrimage were uncomfortable with the anger coming from some of those in the movement. That some were more comfortable with stories of forgiveness or gratitude for the white allies that were so essential to the success of the movement.  It is easy to see why. We can see how 50 years later it seems so obvious and we can lead ourselves to believe that we would have been one of those to answer Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to Selma. It would be easy to believe that we would have been with the marchers on the bridge and not with those who sought to stop the marchers.  It is easy to get lost in the beauty of King’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. It can be easy to believe that given how far we have come on civil rights that the work is over, that the laws have been changed and that people are no longer judged by the color of their skin.  We want to believe that and that is understandable. Yet when we deny the anger of the oppressed, when we tell them we don’t want to hear that, that they are making us uncomfortable, that it won’t sell to the general public to see anger and outrage – then we are participating in the oppression.  What has and is happening to women, people of color, LGBTQ persons, those in poverty is outrageous and they all have plenty of reasons to be angry.  To deny that anger or to refuse to hear it is to deny the humanity of those who are oppressed.  Justice is not warm, fuzzy work – justice work is messy and hard.  Justice work requires a vision like those who built the cathedrals hundreds of years ago knowing they would never see the finished project.

That is why our justice work must be grounded in passion and love. It must be grounded by a vision that includes ourselves – a vision of a world where all, without exception are thriving.  Love and justice require imagination and the ability to envision a new world.  Not all of us will like the image – because often justice demands not just expanding the current circle and making it bigger – it requires a whole new circle.  We must remember that while we have created an image of Martin Luther King Jr that makes it seem that all he wanted to do was expand the current circle – he had in fact fallen out of favor at the end of his life for going beyond that notion.  His linking the fight for civil rights to opposition to the war in Vietnam and to unjust economic systems – not just based on race but a systemic problem linked with the economy has been lost.  He was not at all popular for his seeing a vision that was not just about African Americans being given a place at the current table but rather a whole new table.  When I use this reading in my sermon on marriage I say that simply allowing same-sex couples to participate in heteronormative marriage is too small a vision.  One of the gifts that the LGBTQ community possesses is the ability to reimagine family.  Out of necessity and survival, members of the LGBTQ community forged families and homes and lives based on the choice to live and love together regardless of blood and legal ties.  They created families of choice – this ability to imagine family beyond our current nuclear family model can make us uncomfortable. King’s vision, the LGBTQ vision of family can make even members of those communities uncomfortable.

Justice requires that we see the connections – connections between rights for people of color, for women, for the poor, for the LGBTQ community without diminishing the very real unique challenges faced by those communities.  Our other tendency can be to reduce problems to one cause such as poverty or lack of education, and while a more just economy, a thriving education system that serves all will make a difference … we cannot diminish the unique challenges posed by racism, sexism and heterosexism.  It is the temptation that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the circle, it just needs tweaking to include more people.  When justice calls into question the whole system, we can become very fearful and retreat – we can say we didn’t buy into that.  Yet when the connections are made, when I truly understand that my well-being is tied to the well-being of the whole then I cannot help but see that simply making minor adjustments to the current system is inadequate.  That we need a vision of a whole new way of being and living that supports and sustains the life of all of humanity and our fragile planet.

To make love is to make justice Carter Heyward tells us that love creates righteousness here on earth. So how will we here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks make justice? Who needs our love, our commitment and passion to a better world?  What are we doing already to create a more just community here on the Outer Banks?  Certainly this congregation has been a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights and welcoming LGBTQ persons into this community.  This congregation shares its offering each month with organizations that are making a difference in the lives of people and animals here on the Outer Banks.  As this congregation moves forward into the future, what are other ways this congregation can work for justice?  What are the unique strengths this faith community brings to the Outer Banks and where will that be most effective?  Because the work of justice, the work of love, also demands that we know our limits.  No one can do everything. No one congregation can do all the work that needs to be done.  It is imperative to begin with knowing your own strengths and limitations.  It is critical that to be a good ally, that one begin with learning what that means.

In listening to Rev. Clark Olson, who was attacked along with James Reeb and Orlaf Miller, he says how unaware he was of the true danger the three of them were facing. Olson learned that night the true cost of answering Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to Selma.  We may all hope that we would answer the call, be on the bridge, be willing to lay down our safety and our lives.  In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Answering the call to justice is to answer the call to love, to love even those who are our enemies, to love those who hate us, to love those who despise us – most of us will not be asked to lay down our lives but I do wonder how things might be transformed if we were willing to lay down our lives for the more just world of our imaginings.

It also requires that we risk our comfort, that we relinquish our grip on what “normal” means. It means imaging not just making the current circle bigger but to be willing to transform the circle entirely.  As Heyward tells us – “Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.”

May it be so!

Monday, February 2, 2015


I preached this sermon Sunday January 25, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story: Answer Mountain by Sarah E. Skwire
Assorted Quotes on Prayer:

“Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can't even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I'm aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well-considered intention. If you don't have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Prayer gives us the guidance we need. It opens the mind to the illumination of God. The prophets made their whole life an act of prayer - so they received the inspiration of God. Our humbler minds, standing much below the heights in which they stood, receiving for the most part only a reflected illumination, may now and then by climbing a little higher catch a glimpse of the direct light. Through prayer, we can receive the guidance of God to strengthen our hold on truth, goodness, righteousness and purity which are the laws for humanity emanating from the nature of God.”
― Israel I Mattuck

“Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits,
God’s will to prevail in our lives.
Prayer might not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.”
―  Abraham Joshua Heschel

“A family in my sister's neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, "Dear God, that family needs grace." She replied firmly, "That family needs casseroles," and proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this IS grace.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Prayer is not a shout into an empty void answered only by its own echo.  Prayer is the spirit within us reaching out to the Spirit of the universe, and prayer is that Spirit responding to us.”
― Robert I. Kahn


Prayer is often one of those words and concepts in Unitarian Universalism that we don’t talk a great deal about. We struggle with the notion of prayer because it raises uncomfortable questions such as “Does prayer mean I believe in God?” “What does it mean that God answers or doesn't answer prayers?”  What is the purpose of prayer - why would I do it?”  “Who exactly am I praying to?”

These are all good and important questions to wrestle with, to keep asking.  Personally I love the first quote of our reading that prayer is a relationship.  Prayer is about connecting my self to the ultimate source of existence, the Spirit of life, the ground of being, God.  It is about speaking and it is about listening, paying attention.  So does that mean that prayer requires belief in God?  In this I call upon James Luther Adams who says that we all need faith, or something that we put our confidence in. James Luther Adams says this about God “...the word God may in the following formulations be replaced by the phrase ‘that which ultimately concerns humans,’ or by the phrase ‘that which we should place our confidence in.’ God (or that in which we have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence.” Faith is not about belief it is about trusting that there is something greater than ourselves; faith is knowing that we are not self-creating, self-sustaining.

So when we engage in prayer we are engaging with that which is greater than ourselves - the Spirit of Life, the source of all, the ground of being.  It is connecting with that which is both within and beyond us. Parker Palmer might say it is how we connect with our deepest, most authentic selves. Palmer in quoting Annie Dillard describes spirituality as connecting us with “the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.”

So prayer is not so much about what we believe but rather about expressing our deepest longings, joys, looking for guidance and discernment, our longing to be transformed and a way to hold the sorrows and joys of our own and others lives.  It is about connecting with the deepest parts of ourselves, with being, with what we name in our 7th principle as the Interconnected Web of Life. Prayer is a practice that embodies our connection to the sacred, to the holy, to that which is of ultimate meaning.  There are many many ways to pray and the purpose of all these many ways is to connect with ourselves and with being itself.  It is about connection, relationship to oneself, the world around us and to that which is so ultimate we often cannot even find words to name it.

There are many different ways and parts to prayer. I think when we think of prayer we have images of people on their knees asking God to do as they ask - heal a sick person, win a game, assure the outcome we desire, get us out of sticky situation.  So first that is one kind of prayer - petitionary prayer - asking for what is needed. Yet our popular image of how this kind of prayer is answered is often like the woman in the story who looks to the mountain to tell her what to make for dinner.  This leads to seeing the Divine as an arbitrary gift giver who sometimes answers prayers and sometimes not and maybe it was because we didn't ask enough, or the right way or maybe God was just off doing something else that day.  Yet this can be cold comfort to the person who lost a loved one, received a grave diagnosis or otherwise has their world fall apart.  If God is in control of everything, dispensing favors then God is not very good at all - allowing all sorts of evil and horrible things to happen.  Yet what if our petitionary prayers are something very different? What if it is like Elizabeth Gilbert states that it is about stating a very clear intention … a kind of naming a need into being?

Another familiar prayer is gratitude.  Meister Eckhart tells us that if the only prayer we ever offer is thanks it will be enough.  Prayers of gratitude make us stop and take time to be grateful for our lives and the gifts in our lives. Prayers of gratitude can bring comfort in the midst of hard times, they can be prayers of joy when a long awaited gift arrives or the surprising unexpected joy arrives in our lives. Stopping, giving thanks, slows us down and reminds us of the abundance in our lives.

Less comfortable prayer is the prayer of confession, the prayer of admitting to ourselves that we have fallen short.  Yet this is also a critical part of living. None of us is perfect and we will make mistakes, we will do things we regret, we will hurt those we love.  If we cannot admit to making a mistake then we can never get to the work of making amends, asking for forgiveness and forgiving ourselves and others.  Prayers of confession are not about beating ourselves up. Rather, it is the acknowledgement to ourselves and to the holy that we have fallen short.  As a child I often thought of this as the list of things I had done wrong that way - hit my sister, fought with my sister, used a bad word, talked back etc.  That is not a bad start yet now as an adult I can also look at the why or go a little deeper and get curious about what is going on beyond the act.  How did I fall short in my relationships? How did I let myself down today?  How did I do less than my best?  If we can be honest with ourselves about the ways we fell short then we can also begin to change.  An apology begins when we acknowledge that we made a mistake, that we have something to say we are sorry for.  That apology is much more authentic when we take the time to acknowledge it to ourselves and then go to the person to offer our apology. Part of that is also learning to forgive ourselves. I know that I personally struggle deeply with forgiving myself, with letting go of all the ways I have let myself and others down. Yet learning to forgive ourselves is essential to living, loving and moving through life.

Another form of prayer that gets little attention is prayers of lamentation.  In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a whole book called Lamentations.  Many of psalms are prayers of lamentations. Lamentation is the crying out for relief, in anger, in grief. It is the Why is this happening? Why me?  Why now?  It is crying out for relief, for justice, for healing? I know some of my most heartfelt prayers have been when life has literally pushed me to my knees in pain.  We don’t talk about it because these moments are so personal, so intimate.  We also live in a culture that denies this kind of pain.  Yet there are moments in all of our lives that we will find ourselves crying out.

The Psalms are a wonderful inspiration for prayer because every human emotion appears in the psalms - praise, gratitude, petition, anger, lamentation.  Sometimes they make us uncomfortable because of their rawness, the raw anger and emotion.  It flies in the face of our safe, rational, abstract prayer.  The Psalms are embodied prayers, the prayers of people who love, who hurt, who get hurt, are oppressed, are liberated, are angry, are joyful.  Prayer connects us not just with our head but our hearts, our being.  In many traditions prayer is combined with movement - standing, kneeling, laying down, raising our arms, covering one’s eyes, walking, - prayer then becomes a full body experience.  In the Islamic tradition, one prays 5 times a day, facing East.  There are set prayers and with them comes specific movements.  Prayer, like other spiritual practices, connects body, head and spirit - reminding us that we are not abstract disembodied beings but whole people who have bodies, who love, hurt, have feelings and thoughts.  At its best prayer draws us into our full selves.

Does prayer make a difference? Prayer definitely changes the brain.  Scientists have studied the brains of people who pray and meditate regularly and have found that a regular practice of prayer and meditation shapes the brain in positive ways and boosts the immune system.  Much of the science has focused on  monks and others who spend extended hours in prayer but the initial researchers on those who spend even short periods of time in prayer, like half an hour, also benefit.

What then about answers to prayer.  If prayer connects us with our deepest selves, others and the world then prayer is a way of paying attention.  When we pay attention then we may see things we did not see before; the words that we need to hear, that lift our spirits are there; a friend shows up with a hug and wise words; we make a connection with someone who can assist us; or the job long awaited for comes from an unexpected place. Also in clearly stating our intention, in asking for what we need, or giving thanks we are making it more likely that we will connect with what we need, we will notice it when it comes. In our reading from Heschel, prayer may not water the field, or fix the bridge or the city but prayer can transform us so we can do the work of the world.  As Israel Mattock tells us prayer connects us with truth, beauty and goodness.  Also as the story tell us - the answer to prayer is always under construction - it is sometimes yes, sometimes no, maybe and sometimes I don’t know.

Prayer connects us with our deepest selves, with that which is greater than ourselves which gives life meaning, connects us with others, the earth and the world.  It changes and transforms us, and as we change and transform, we see the world with new eyes. Prayer restores, renews, inspires us to go and do the work of building and healing the world.  In being transformed we then can do the work of transforming the world.