Posts Tagged Joy
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/4/17 for the 95th anniversary of the Flower Communion.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of zest. Zest is a fancy word that we don’t use that much everyday. What does it mean to you? (call it out.) What does it mean to leave room for all of these things (energy, possibility, life, vitality) in our lives? How do we do that when we find ourselves trudging along, through one more test, one more class, one more day at the office? When we’re stuck or exhausted, where do we find the help to kick-start feeling alive again?
American poet, children’s book author, and photographer, Nancy Wood, gives us one answer in her poem entitled My Help is in the Mountain:
“My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal …
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one
give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.”
….and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree. Nancy Wood is talking about something many of us have done. As a kid, I remember laying out this time of year on the grass and staring up at the daytime sky. If it were a clear blue day, and I could look just at the right angle, I could lose any sense of up or down. It could feel like I was in the sky. Who else remembers doing that? Who else has done that recently – maybe in your own way? (less hands?) As we get busier and busier, it’s easier and easier to forget to get lost in the clouds from time to time. We even use the phrase – lost in the clouds – to mean a criticism.
I recently was reading a blog about resilience, how we handle the stresses and pressures of life. It basically argued that how resilient we are is less a factor of how much we can endure in life, but how well we turn all “the busy” off each week. Do we fill up our weekends with tasks? Do we do work on the train or the plane? Are we up at 6am, and still doing homework at 11pm? We may be able to endure a lot for a long time, but if we don’t find ways of putting it all down – not simply shifting our focus of which burden we’ll manage next – but actually getting lost in the clouds – our resilience will give out sooner than later. And in between – all our enduring work will be of less quality. We’ll be testier, in worse spirits, less accurate. Being a people of zest means remembering to leave room for life – in our life.
Remember the words of writer, Anne Sexton from earlier in this service, which began, “There is joy in all: in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed, that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning, in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee each morning, in the spoon and the chair that cry “hello there, Anne” each morning, in the godhead of the table that I set my silver, plate, cup upon each morning.” Anne is reminding us to find life in all the everyday things we become used to; to not let them pass by unnoticed. We can find renewal in the small mundane pleasures in life if we remember to. And most importantly, to share that joy with one another, for as she says, joys left unshared, die young. Joy, zest, life, are best shared. Maybe a bit too often, we live in a culture where we look down upon exuberance. Maybe a bit too often we elevate the perpetually busy among us – as if we were ever going to be given a Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic. (What would that merit badge even look like? Someone tapping their watch? Maybe just a dry time stamp.)
As we come to a close in this service of celebration, memory, and life, I want to share with you one more short story, a personal one. It’s sort of my go-to memory in my life about enjoying what’s before you. When I was in college, I spent one semester studying abroad at Oxford. At the close of the program, they held a celebratory dinner. I got invited up to the high table by one of the professors whom I had grown close with for the meal. As it happens, he and I have stayed in contact these past 20 years; he even gave one of the readings at my wedding two years ago.
Now the dining setting is a little like Hogwarts from Harry Potter. Students all at long tables – but in suits and dresses rather than robes – and there are no owls in sight. (We had to dress formally even for breakfast.) Christ Church, Oxford, was home to Lewis Carroll who wrote the Alice in Wonderland stories that we all know so well, and in honor of him, the stained glass windows all had small depictions of parts of the story crafted into the glass.
There’s a part in the dinner, near to the end, when they bring out silver to serve the tea (and for the silly Americans like me, the coffee.) I’m having a surreal moment of is this really happening. It must have shown on my face, because the professor leans in and whispers, “The Buddhists are wrong, this is meant to be enjoyed.”
Now first off, the Buddhists are not wrong. But we do sometimes think of the Buddhist mindfulness teaching in the wrong way. Being present and aware of what’s before us is being mindful, and not passing judgments. But sometimes we confuse that teaching with not letting ourselves enjoy the fruits of life. It’s sort of another form of the Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic that we can let infect our religious life.
But this professor was reminding me, that it was ok to soak it all in. At the end of a long semester, with a lot of work and effort, that it was ok to celebrate, to feel good about it – even knowing that more was going to need to be done before college was over. Now was the time to breathe it all in.
As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, another year of school for most of our children and youth, we can remember to soak it all in. Some of us heard the Coming of Age speeches yesterday at our service for the graduating Long Island UU coming of agers. Our youth will share those credo’s next Sunday in our worship then, along with the speeches from our Bridging youth who are graduating from Sunday School as they head into adulthood.
And for some of us, it was a long, hard year. Maybe the world has taken turns we don’t agree with. Maybe we’ve endured a year that was full of more protest than gratitude. None of that goes away, but we can still raise a glass to life, and drink deep. Our Flower Communion celebration today commemorated 95 years of celebrations worldwide. Our partner churches in Eastern Europe asked their American cousins to celebrate it this Sunday in honor of it’s origins in 1923. The Flower Communion began at a time in Europe’s history where one of the worst wars humanity ever knew – the First World War, was still in folks’ recent memories. Unitarian minister, Rev. Dr. Capek, founder of the modern Unitarian movement in then Czechoslovakia, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain.
I’ll end with these consecrating words from Rev. Dr. Capek. As we leave today, may this blessing enter our lives:
“Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. “Rev. Dr. Capek
 My Help Is in the Mountain, from Hollering Sun, 1972, by Nancy Wood
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/21/17. It looks at the spirituality of joy.
We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.
The other day, on what was probably our first real warm gorgeous Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’
We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes. What was I doing? Tasks, and work, and plans, fears and concerns were all distracting me from the moment. Those were my thoughts – a part of me. And they were disconnecting me from life. I was clearly living in the realm of “then” or “soon” or “what if.” That world does not exist. Only the present does. These thoughts steal us away from the sacredness of life – from joyfully living. We excuse our sidetracked minds as merely being easily distracted. But when we turn our focus toward what we are doing, rather than what we could be doing or what we weren’t doing, we become aware of life – our life.
There are several Buddhist refrains that echo this. Some of us may have already heard them, so I’ll quickly recap them. One is about a teacup and another is about washing dishes. When one drinks a cup of tea, they should only be drinking a cup of tea. They shouldn’t be dreading doing the dishes, or hoping to win the lottery. If so, they’ve lost the most precious gift we have, simply being. The only thing they turn out to actually be doing – is nothing. They aren’t even drinking that cup of tea. Now granted, some of us may not particularly enjoy washing our own dishes, and as someone who lived for years in small apartments, I am fully aware of a life without a dishwasher, but that’s life too. If those breaths you spent while washing your forks and knives were taken away from you suddenly, they would be the most sacred thing you could hope for. Yet we rarely pay them any heed. All of our activities, joyful or tedious, are our activities; and mindful presence in them can create a joy through them. Taking these practices to heart, we can gain a sense of accomplishment.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of embodiment. We began the month with a music service remembering the great protest movements in our country, and moved into last week reflecting on the original meaning of Mothers’ Day – an international women’s peace movement. Both looked at how we embody our highest values in our lives. As a people of embodiment, how do we live joy more fully into our lives? One of the stories I told last week talked about how our grudges can weigh us down, and stoop our shoulders. I want to talk a little more about that now. Let’s all try that out in our seats for a moment. Maybe you’re already doing it, but if not go ahead and ruin your posture. Hunch down, even more…. How’s that feel?
Walking around as most of us do – slightly stooped, shoulders slightly curled forward and our breath fast and shallow, just feels bad. More importantly, most of us are completely unaware of the connection. (ok you can stop hunching over now.) I don’t know if you’ve had this sort of experience before; for myself, during the latter part of my years in computers, I began to suffer an odd numbing sensation in my arms. The obvious guess was carpel tunnel; but that turned out not to be the case. I was so extremely stressed out, that it crippled my breathing. I simply was not getting enough oxygen into my body. The final prescription by my medical doctor – was to start breathing. (That was a rough prescription to turn into the pharmacist. She had no idea what to do with that one.) And then the miracle occurred. I could feel my arms again. If the meditative washing of the dishes isn’t an end in itself, which I believe it is, it’s also a good practice for our overall health. I know it might seem trite, but I swear, after trying this out for a few weeks, you start to find joy and even wonder in all the little things. In fact, the things that you previously enjoyed seem all the more sweet.
There’s something more to this practice than our health and awareness. A central tenet of Buddhism is attention to our breath. Buddhism recognizes a link between all of us when we touch this awareness. The symbolism is expressed in what Buddhists call “the Bodhi Spot” or the place where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment. He attained Enlightenment at the foot of a tree. This spot, for us, is not a geographic place on earth. That “place” is reached by all of us when we encounter the “moment – between the moments.” When we put aside our thoughtful distractions and become fully present in whatever we are doing, we all enter that same space together. It’s a joyful way of living into our 7th Principle, “We are all part of this interdependent web of life.”
Often the lack of presence keeps most of us from ever entering the same world as all but a rare few people. We drive past thousands of people every day living in Long Island. For folks who commute on the LIRR to NYC, they’ll walk by even more folks. We’ve all experienced this; whether in the crowded street or the bustling mall. You remember a few faces an hour later, but for the most part, they weren’t ever there. We were certainly moving along, as were they. But we’re often more focused on our daydream world than the streetscape. I even think it highly unlikely those few whose faces I can recall, would remember mine. And they probably wouldn’t remember yours, either. If we missed that many flowers in a garden, we would think we missed the point of the stroll. It’s as if we aren’t even in the same space together, despite our bodies. Too often, we’re not here. It’s a loss; a tragedy that we’re not here. It’s important to recognize this. Living in this massively populated modern world, we may not be able to engage in deep relationship with each passer by, but we can attempt to experience their presence in our midst. And it’s also important to identify when we carry this anonymity into relationships that we can foster.
Besides the Buddha’s tree, there’s another garden story that comes to mind. It talks about how rarely we’re able to be ourselves around others. How we focus more on what others may think, rather than just being ourselves. I’ll confess – I’m not about to offer you the traditional interpretation of this tale, but I expect you’ll come to appreciate this reading of the text a bit more than the conventional view. It’s the Garden of Eden story.
Genesis 3:1-7 is the classic biblical verse where the serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The crime scene culminates with the expulsion from the Garden. God then barricades paradise with angelic Cherubim and fiery swords. In a Christian context, it is often sited as the moment of original sin, although that interpretation doesn’t begin until after the Second Century C.E. And Jewish commentary doesn’t traditionally read sin into this passage. God warns Adam and Eve that if they touch or eat of this tree He will punish them with imminent death. The original language implies a criminal “death penalty” sentence. Ultimately, however, God does not execute the first couple as warned. Rather they are sentenced to a life of suffering and eventual death in exile from the Garden.
That’s the fairly straightforward reading of the passage. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it that might be more helpful to us as Unitarian Universalists. The moment humankind internalizes the duality of good and evil, as seen through the eating of the fruit, we became aware of our separation from things. Nakedness in the garden is only a concern if you believe that the other things and people around you may bear a judgment about your nudity. A sense of embarrassment or guilt would also raise these fears. For the first time, Adam and Eve didn’t even want to see each other naked. “I don’t want him to look at me.” “I don’t want her to see me like this.” Until this point, from the little we have to go on with this myth, Adam and Eve did not fear or think about things. Presumably they only did things in response to the world around them. Thoughts likely existed for the couple, but they were evidently not controlling influences on the first people. In this idealized Eden, prior to the fruit-tree crime, humankind effectively lived in the moment, each moment. Before the fruit from that middle tree, nakedness was just nakedness. No positive or negative value was placed on it. No shame, no fear, no embarrassment. It simply was.
What does the exile from the Garden mean in non-mythological terms? Does it simply signify the pain in child bearing or the sweat in manual labor the bible details for women and men? Although myths do seek to explain the source of everyday things, they also reveal deeper truths that we too often dismiss beneath the fable. Moving beyond nakedness, one could consider any emotion we experience in light of the Garden; for instance – fear. All of us have experienced it at numerous times throughout our lives. We’re afraid of the next meeting we have with our boss. Or we’re scared of the results of some serious medical test. We might just need a high grade on a big exam to pass a rough course. Or it might be the truck careening into our vehicle. When we’re separate from the Garden we think about our emotions. Fear no longer remains simply fear; rather it grows into a sort of dread.
The constant cycling of our worried thoughts can paralyze us. What will the medical results be? How long will I live? How much pain will I have to undergo to treat my illness? Am I going to get into that good school next year? All of these are genuine concerns about our future. But generally, when we worry, none of them are in the present. Usually, we worry about things that might happen. We create a world that might be – and for the vast majority of us that world is quite unpleasant. Despite popular sentiment, worry is not a useful means of intelligently planning for the future. If the results turn out to be favorable, we’ll have lived through the experience once through our thoughts. If they turn out to be negative, we will be putting ourselves through that dreadful space twice. Living in our world of thoughts about the real world – that is our separation from the Garden. That is our original sin.
In our world of duality, one state only exists in relation to another. Knowledge of good comes with the expression of evil. No longer is it just the world inside the garden, but now there is the world outside the garden as well. Where there’s sin … there’s also grace. But what does grace mean to us? … It’s just being naked. No shame, no guilt, no fear. Worry is not graceful. It’s also not fear. Despite the cherubim and the flaming sword, that now bars entrance to Eden, we can return to the Garden in our life; although the metaphor aptly describes how tricky a proposition that is. We need to separate worry from fear. Fear is the emotion we experience. Worry is what we add to it with our thoughts.
The next time your afraid, just be afraid. This doesn’t mean you ignore the car in the road speeding toward you. But it does mean you don’t consider the cars that missed you, or the other cars that might hit you later on. You just get out of the way.
Most of us will eventually get out of the way; but we’ll do our best to consider all the rest along the road. It’s more than just a lot of energy spent on realities that won’t come to be. It comes back to not living in the life we do have. Instead we’re sleepwalking through fantastical dreams that are both good and bad … but not real.
The self-awareness we gained in the Garden is a gift I deeply cherish. I appreciate the understanding I have over that of any other animal. I even tend to like all my emotions, whether they are full of love and joy, or weighed down by anger. I remember a time when feeling anything was particularly difficult, maybe you remember a time like that too, or maybe you’re feeling numb today. It’s a very hard place to be. Our full and fully present, presence of mind, is the spiritual goal. But just like the first “Fall”, that self-awareness can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a blessing. And yet – joy – can be found in between the moments of hardship and pain.
Adam and Eve grew in wisdom by eating that fruit. They also forgot that everything was OK as it was. After all, they had been running around naked for sometime doing quite well for themselves until then. We can have it both ways though. We don’t need to sacrifice our wisdom to return to the Garden. In a way, we can even return to that state of innocence along with self-awareness. Our experiences are not lost to us with this return. But we do have to let go of our dark dreamings. The innocence we return to is not synonymous with ignorance or even lack of experience. It’s the sort of grace that flows when we’re naked without shame. Sometimes, we can even choose joy, when we allow ourselves.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This reflection was part of a multigenerational holiday service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/20/15. It talks about finding hope in times of hardship.
For three years now, I’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This past Friday night, we went to see the Paul Winter Consort. Think classical music with a gospel singer, but with a global twist. Each year, guest musicians join them from around the globe. This year we heard from two Brazilian singers – in the style of basso nova and world-beat, along with an African-style dance troop with a whole lot of drumming.
The concert lives out the longest night of the year. The cathedral darkens as the moon rises and sets. Stars lighten the gothic ceiling. The classical instruments make you think whales are singing, and wolves are howling in the night. They even recreate a thunder storm with a combination of classical instruments and lighting. And the festive performance ends with the audience being invited into singing our own “Howl-alleiuh” chorus – with folks making wolf sounds of our own. But in the middle of the show, there’s an immense golden gong that gets lifted up the height of the cathedral – resounding and resounding – showing the lightening of days and the shrinking back of the night – as the sun rises once again from the darkest hour. It gives me hope and chills. And celebrating the Winter Solstice in such a multi-cultural way, honoring the music and art of people all across the world, feels especially healing, in these days of confusion and hatred for folks who are different. Joy in the face of fear is healing. Joy in the face of hatred, is saving.
This reminds me of a traditional folk tale: (tell story of “The Golden Ball.”)
Sometimes, when life gets routine, or boring, or maybe even rough, we see the amazing things in other people’s lives and wish we could have that. We can pine for brighter times and forget what gifts are right in our lives. The folk tale I just shared about the Golden Ball, reminds us that even as we look on into other people’s lives and see the shine and joy, other people may also be looking back into our lives and see something that shines all the same.
I look at our own community in these days of hardship in this season of joy. Our youth shared stories of hardship they have witnessed for people who are seen as different from others. Our own faith community teaches that every person matters, and that diversity is a spiritual value. I have felt worn down by many of the stories we hear in the world; but I am deeply heartened to know that we are part of a community that teaches these values of love, of justice, of compassion. I am deeply heartened by being part of a religious community that empowers our youth to speak love in the face of fear. We have a big shining golden ball hanging from our Fellowship windows, and there are people who look to us in wonder and gratitude. When you are feeling low or down and out before all the hardship of the world, take heart in that truth.
This sermon celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.
Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?
We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.
The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.
I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.
So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.
Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?
What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?
The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.
Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.
As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.
We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, 12/14/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the wisdom of Julian of Norwich to help ground us in times of suffering and loss. It addresses our current moral crises with the death of black men on our streets, and the use of torture in our government.
On Tuesday, we had another Nor’Easter blow through our area. I was drenched from head to toe after running around to pick up bagels for my monthly clergy gathering – which this time met here at our Fellowship. Opening the umbrella, while carrying a Box of Coffee, my right hand limited by a finger splint due to a mild case of tendinitis – was just not worth the effort. So I gave up on the umbrella and went the route of Aquaman that morning. When my colleagues arrived a short time later, they would helpfully point out, “you’re wet,” as if I may have missed that fun fact.
As you can imagine from the work we have to do on our parking lot, the grounds here were no better than I was. Our southern entrance had a lake that started at the street and went half the way back. Our northern entrance was dry, but there was a large pool just past the front lot. Walking up to the office entrance, you could see two inches of water pooling up on the grass. By noon, there was water leaking down a chimney and through the wall into our office; the wall that divides the main office from my office. The pre-school housed here was closing early and parents were picking up their kids several hours early. We’d later learn of flooding in the basement of our cottage.
Thanks to the tireless work of Susie, Frank and Scott, (and possibly more folks,) we’d have trucks here the next day pumping out our lakes and our basements and surely disappointing the migrating ducks and geese that saw a new vacation home forming. Downed trees are or have been removed. At last update, I believe work on improving the condition of our lot for the winter will begin on Monday. We should see less lakes and less flooding very soon.
With every major project, things will get messy, or there will be surprises uncovered as the work to make it better gets underway. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. But we try not to get frustrated by the next problem as if it were a surprise or out of the blue. When something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat, but the new problems don’t mean it can’t be fixed. Sometimes it just takes will.
As I was in our office hearing about all the extra storm-related challenges we’re facing, the next thing after the next thing, I had a moment where I felt like it was a mundane parable for our country which is struggling with much more serious woes. The news has been very rough lately. How rough it’s been for some of our people isn’t new, just how conscious mainstream America has been about the tragedies, is new. Last week’s sermon was a difficult one to preach and a difficult one to hear. A few people came up to me after the service to say that it was exhausting or unenjoyable – but thanked me for preaching what needed to be preached. I’m grateful for a community that is willing to reflect on such an impossible situation – because if we can’t work on healing racism in this country, we have no foundation as a religious community. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. Sometimes it just takes listening.
Where I was outraged by the deaths of so many black men going unaddressed, this week’s Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture completely exhausted me. Watching the media spin doctor calling a spade a spade, so that we can either continue to feel good about ourselves as a nation, or so that some of our leaders are not tried in the Hague, is dispiriting. But I think it’s connected. How we treat black bodies in our nation is somehow related to how we treat brown bodies in our time of perpetual war. Our morality on our streets, is connected to our morality in our not-so-secret interrogation chambers. Now we know, for a fact, that there’s a real problem with how our government honors our founding principles, and honors international human rights laws. We can choose to spin ourselves in circles to deny what the Senate Report found, or we can choose to begin the work of fixing what we know isn’t working in our leadership.
But this week, I have no answers. I have no easy action steps for us to take to address political change in our democracy. We can remember last week’s underlying call to learn to listen to the anger, we may or may not understand, from our places of relative privilege – if we have that privilege. We can also seek grounding rather than actions. We have to do both, but often we do neither. For that grounding, I’d like to turn to three thoughts from the writings of Julian of Norwich that come out of her book, “Revelations of Divine Love” that are particularly helpful right now. Julian was an English anchoress alive in the 14th and 15th century and largely regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics.
Speaking of God, Julian writes, “He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.” It’s hard to find joy in times of adversity. Julian is speaking to the very human tendency to focus on the tempests, travails and disease we all face from year to year. And sometimes those tempests are horrendous storms that we would wish on no one. The media is awash with death, and violence, war and torture. And in our personal lives we are faced with loss of loved ones, personal illness, exhaustion from caring for a beloved family member, or wrestling with depression. All of it is real, and serious, and full of grief. And still… the mystic teaches us that we were never promised not to be tempested or travailed – that is the hard truth of life; we were promised we wouldn’t be overcome.
For Julian, this is not so much – or not solely – about faith in God, but a sense of union with God. For her, and many mystics, belief washes away and is replaced with a sense of deep connection with the holy; the sense that there is no separation between humanity and the sacred. I imagine it’s a similar sense that may arise in deep practices of mindfulness meditation. A deep sense of belonging, and finding nourishment from that well. I have experienced it in my own meditation practice, and can attest that it is grounding in times of extreme crisis. Even if we don’t live in that state most of the time, the moments of it inform all the rest. We remember that promise Julian speaks of – we shall not be overcome.
From that promise we hear what is Julian’s most notable teaching, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Our choir sang an anthem earlier that adapts this message by putting it into conversation with the part of all of us that wrestles with deep pain and misery. Some of t lyrics of this song by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse read, “I said, “Julian, do you not know, do you not know about loneliness, and Julian, do you not know, do you not know about disease?” I said Julian, do you not know, do you not know about cruelty?” I said Julian, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees.” Basically, it’s all well and good to say things will be well, but I’m facing death, and loneliness in a world full of places of extreme cruelty — how can you say all will be well – you don’t know what loss really is. To which the song’s version of Julian replies, “No one does not know, does not know about loneliness and no one does not know, does not know about disease.” She said, “No one does not know, does not know about cruelty.” She said, “I know, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees where I heard:
‘All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.’
Julian believed that God controlled and orchestrated all things. Personally, I think Julian was way off-base there, but it does point to a certain truth. Sometimes, it’s in the times of strife where we find ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the mundane parking lot needing to really, really flood before we’ll take the action that we’re now taking to repair it. Sometimes it takes facing the loss of a job, for us to wake up to our addiction to alcohol. Sometimes it’s about injury; I recall the months of physical therapy it took me to heal following being hit by a car as a pedestrian. I would never want to go through that again, but it taught me to be more patient with the people around me. I gained an empathy for people dealing with mobility issues that I didn’t have before. Facing the risk of death, helped me to be more present to the life around me. It also showed me how some people react to injury. I have never been bumped into so much in my life on a NYC subway as when I was walking with a leg brace and a crutch. I swear, people would go out of their way to knock into the knee with the brace on. I found myself having to sit with the crutch physically protecting my knee, and people would still find a way to walk into my leg.
Sometimes, a nation can persist in allowing a certain number of it’s citizens to be killed every year to ignore what lies below the surface, but at a certain point – the tragic is so glaring that authority and privilege can’t keep our conscious quiet any more. I would never wish the tragic on anyone, but occasionally being brought to our knees helps us to hear what needs to be heard. What we become in light of that voice matters.
How do we find our way back to joy? Julian, the mystic, tells us, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Like most great mystics, gender is fluid. When she speaks of our “Savior” she means Jesus as our Mother. Some of us will hear this as speaking to our relationship to God. Others will find its truth in mindfulness or reverence in being. I find both interpretations helpful.
A discipline of grounding ourselves in these ways is tied to permission giving. Sometimes, when things are really tough, we don’t allow ourselves to feel anything but the pain or the misery. For some of us, it’s too much to manage to find room for joy. For others of us, we’ve been socialized not to allow ourselves to find joy in times of hardship; as if finding something to appreciate in a time of loss is somehow wrong. Life is too complex, and too messy, not to leave room for the whole range of human experience in any moment. These grounding disciplines can carve out room for what our hearts need.
The metaphor she points to is both our unending opportunity to be born and reborn again in the holy. That when we come to the point where we’re on our knees, because whatever life has thrown our way is just too much to bear, we come to realize that we’ve never left our source. …Out of whom we shall never come. As the words of one of our hymns tell us, born and reborn again… In this moment, again and again. Despite the hardships of this world, which are many, and sometimes unbearable, we return to our choir anthem’s message reminding us of tenderness, of friends, of the Spirit… “it’s only love that never ends.” It’s only love that never ends. If we return to this, if we are grounded in this, we can find joy in times of hardship. In fact, the moments of joy will help to heal, or manage, all the rest. And in some cases, finding the joy, may be the only way to bear what is unbearable.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/7/14. It explores the tragic death of black men and boys by white police officers.
It’s December. The Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit before a river of protestors marching from Times Square. Anger in the season of joy. The police would barricade them some way along their route so that their peaceful protest would not disrupt broadcast television. And true to form, NBC would nary blink an eye to cover it. Late night news would mourn the delays on drivers. A “die-in” at Grand Central – where protesters, en masse, lie motionless on the floor – delayed train commuting for hours. By the next day, papers would publish sketches of the figure of the Blind Justice on the ground gasping “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, a black father and a husband, had died at the hands of a police officer who would employ an illegal chokehold on him, and the grand jury ruled no cause for indictment. I can’t breathe.
We know from the video footage that Eric Garner was unarmed. We know he was not attacking anyone. We know he was accused of the petty misdemeanor of selling loose cigarettes on the street. He kept his hands to himself and barely struggled with the police who were slowly killing him. He said, “I can’t breathe” and the police continued to kill him. We know this from the video footage. And still, no cause for indictment. We know this from the video footage. Yet seeing is not enough to believe anymore – to at least go to trial.
Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black boy, was playing on a field with a toy gun. A 911 call was made which mentioned that the gun was probably fake. Police were dispatched and no word of the probably fake gun was passed onto the responding officers. Within 2 seconds of getting out of the car though, Tamir Rice was gunned down. The police would falsify a whole range of things in their press conference, from lying about asking the boy numerous times to drop the weapon, to claiming that the orange tab was off the end of the gun so they thought it was real. The orange tip was removed, but the toy gun was in Tamir’s pants – so it’s really a moot point – there was no tip to see one way or the other – so they lied about having knowledge they didn’t actually have. We know the responding officers didn’t warn little Tamir because we have video footage that shows they gunned him down within 2 seconds. We have footage. Yet, we’ve likely all heard or read of many white apologists blaming the parents for letting their kid carry a toy gun. ‘It’s the parents’ failure of parenting.’ Ohio is an open carry state, but a child with a toy gun in Ohio is the problem, not the police officer who we’ll later learn had a supervisor who said this particular officer was not fit for duty and was fired, only to be hired by another precinct. But we’ll jump to blame the black child, not the adult trained in the use of firearms.
This thinking is truly remarkable. Back on April 12th, 2014, the media labeled Eric Parker a “protestor” when he aimed a loaded assault rifle at a Federal agent of the Bureau of Land Management when they seized cattle belonging to the rancher Cliven Bundy for their illegal grazing on federal land. This white man with an assault rifle pointed at Federal Agents acting in the course of their duty is merely “protesting” but a black boy with a toy gun playing by himself with no one around him requires deadly force.
So when I hear people say in the case of Ferguson that we should give the system the benefit of the doubt, I say, “I can’t breathe.” Where was the benefit of the doubt for the dead victims? And why, why must we perpetually, and with knee-jerk precision, give the benefit of the doubt to the people with the power in the situation?
I know officers have a seemingly impossible job. I know they put their lives on the line. I know I could never do that job. Yet still, how does critiquing one officer’s actions immediately translate into attacking all officers – conveniently – every single time this comes up. And it appears to be coming up every single month, in every single year, of our lives, for generations.
It’s not rationale. It’s victim-blaming. And we don’t seem to put up with it for any other profession. I have power as a clergy person. I have authority; I have influence; I have a larger voice than most of us simply because of the stature of my office. For a long time, our nation allowed clergy to get away with horrendous offenses in the name of covering up what we did not want to see. Thankfully, light has been shown on corners that should never have been allowed to be hidden. That’s the just and right response to abuse of power. I don’t expect any special considerations because of the nature of my job. In fact, I expect to be held to a higher standard because of the power I wield. It is our ethical and moral responsibility to shine the same light on any professional who holds such power. The calling to task of clergy abuse of individual clergy doesn’t call to task all clergy, just the guilty party. So why must we pretend we’re insulting all officers when we challenge the actions of an individual? We’re not insulting officers by questioning flagrant abuse; we’re treating them like citizens, because they still are. We don’t live in a police state, so we shouldn’t act like it when it comes down to black victims. And frankly, I think not holding police officers to at least the same standard we hold other citizens, is an insult to the office of the police.
We do this with police because something else is going on. Individuals officers are responsible for their actions; they must live with it for the rest of their lives; and justice should be served. But it’s not only about them. It’s about a system that devalues black lives to protect white privilege. If you thought white privilege was only about perks and benefits, the death of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with not using the N-word, Eric and Tamir correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with ensuring equal job opportunities and equal pay regardless of race, Eric and Tamir correct us. Lynchings are alive and well and sanctioned by the justice system, and we become complicit the moment we lose our outrage.
Anger in the season of joy. We should be outraged right now. I remember asking this when I had to preach in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin to my community in Brooklyn, and I will ask it again here in Huntington about the 12 year old Tamir Rice, and the 18 year old Michael Brown: Can you imagine any scenario where one of our 12 year olds, or one of our congregation’s 18 year olds, was killed by anyone and we didn’t lose our minds in sorrow and rage… Take a moment to imagine that horrid reality. Do you actually believe this congregation wouldn’t move heaven and earth to find justice? I can’t. I just can’t. We should apply that reality to the families and communities of Tamir and Michael, and now Eric. Benefit of the doubt language takes on a whole new meaning in that light.
I want to reflect on another story of unjust deaths of children. We talk about it at this time of year, every year, but rarely do the commercials, sermons or politicians of this world focus on this part of the story. It’s the story of the Wise Men. They come to Jerusalem and visit King Herod asking ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…”. (Matthew 2:1-12) King Herod tries to trick the Wise Men into finding Jesus and informing the King of his location for Herod believes Jesus will be a threat to his reign and intends to kill him. The story of the Wise Men often ends with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
But the story goes on with a message you will rarely hear at our children’s pageants. “16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Rachel’s wails echo in our ears when we go the path of cool analyzation in the face of a generation of black children being killed before our eyes without recourse or justice. It’s the safe and privileged position, to argue each individual case over our awkward Thanksgiving dinners, or on Facebook walls, or at the water cooler; all the while forgetting that this is happening every month, of every year, for generations. If we remain solely in our heads, perpetually fixated on the myth that there are always two sides to any situation, we remain deaf to Rachel’s wails. I say it’s a myth – two sides. It’s a myth, because we talk blithely about two sides while never allowing the victims’ sides to actually be heard in a court of law. There has been no trial to avenge the death of Eric Garner; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial to avenge the death of Michael Brown; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial, so there was only one side.
We pretend the closed-door practice of Grand Jury’s, who only ever hear from an elected Prosecutor, is a fair trial. When the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict was released, the British version of the BBC had to explain to its readers that our Grand Jury’s are secret and that only one person gets to speak with them. Europe doesn’t have this as part of their legal procedures and readers were confused. It’s considered anathema to a democracy. The judicial system should be transparent, and in this way, our system is not. Some would also call into question the political nature of asking an elected Prosector, one who likely benefits from Police Union votes, to ever indict a police officer for such a crime. It’s a complicated conflict of interest that under normal circumstances I would discredit, but baring witness to the near 0 rate of county prosecutors every actually indicting a police officer for the violent death of an unarmed black man, I’m not sure it’s something we should continue to wholly discredit.
The story of the Wise Men is timely and important. Who is Herod today? I don’t believe there’s an evil mastermind organizing the wanton death of black children. But I do see a nation feeling threatened by race reacting in violent ways, without recourse or justice for the victims. Travyon, Tamir, Eric and Michael were all on trial for their own deaths. From carrying skittles, to playing with a toy in an empty field, to saying “I can’t breathe”, to a punch in the face that was falsely reported as breaking the officer’s skull but in fact caused light bruising – we give the death sentence. We can parse out all the ways in which someone should or could have done something different, although in 3 of these 4 cases, I find none of those critiques credible in the face of Rachel’s wail and weeping for her children. Friends, we are in a Modern Western Society. We do not give the death sentence for walking home from a convenience store with a packet of skittles; we do not give the death sentence for playing in a field with a toy, or for selling loose cigarettes. We just don’t.
Herod is in our faceless system that allows this happen. Herod is in our criminal justice process that forces imprisonment for non-violent crimes at a ridiculous rate – one that is higher for people of color than for whites. When you’re imprisoned for a non-violent crime, your chances of ever getting a good job decrease. While you’re imprisoned you also lose your right to vote. It’s like the Jim Crow south all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Herod is in the rampant fear whites have of blacks. When Darren Wilson said, “I feel like a 5 year old holding onto Hulk Hogan” we were hearing the fear of Herod come to life. “He looked up at me and had the most aggressive face,” he said to the grand jury. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Officer Darren Wilson is 6’4” and 210 pounds. He’s about two inches taller than me but otherwise my size; except he had a gun. And he was facing an unarmed 18 year old. Officer Wilson also got to speak to the Grand Jury; something Michael Brown never will get a chance to do.
I know these cases aren’t all the same. I’m not saying we need to convict anyone in the court of public opinion. I am saying that the court of public opinion always seems to rule in favor of the officer at the expense of the dead black boy, teen, or man. I am saying that I find it horrifying in a democracy that in each of these instances there is never a trial – a child is dead and there is no trial. We can send a black man to prison for a non-violent crime at a rate radically out of proportion to white prisoners, but we can’t even hold a trial for the killing of black youth when it’s done by police? When we insist that black youth are treated fairly, while they lie dead on a Ferguson street for 4.5 hours for all the community to see, we keep Herod on the throne.
So yes, not all police are bad. In fact most are awesome. But when you hear another story of another unarmed black man killed by another white police officer over another petty mis-demeanor, hold back from the knee-jerk “it’s not all cops.” When Rachel was weeping in Ramah, over the death of all the infant men of Jerusalem, saying “well, it’s not all kings” says more about you than it does the grieving mother.
Spiritually, we’re called not to blithely dismiss the parents’ pain. We’re called to listen; to act. Democracy is a lively art, and it’s the foundation of our fifth principle. In some of these cases we can lobby for Federal Prosecutors to intervene on civil rights causes. In others we can make our voices heard through joining in protest marches, as some of us already have in NYC this weekend. There will be another opportunity later today at the Amityville, LIRR station at 1:30pm where that march culminates at Holy Trinity Baptist Church at 3pm. But equally important, and I tend to feel it’s even more important, as a predominately privileged community that will likely never have to face the horrors of seeing one of our youth lying dead on Main Street for 4.5 hours, is to listen. Respond with our ears and our hearts first. Be present for a family or a community’s pain – first. Be open to the possibility that if every cop isn’t a bad cop – which no one is saying they are – then maybe there’s room to believe that every black youth isn’t a bad kid deserving of death or imprisonment. If we’re going to stay in our heads, that’s the logic we have to face when we retreat to “all cops aren’t bad”, when no one is talking about all cops. That’s the false logic flipped on its head.
I want to end with the other side of anger in the season of joy. Rage. We’re seeing a lot of photos out of Ferguson showing rioting in response to the presence of Police in military gear and later the presence of National Guard. Remember, protestors were first met with gas masks, tear gas and military grade vehicles. Remember also that the peaceful protestors, and the protest leads are decrying the rioting. In fact the riots are happening at the same time as the legal protests. We’re looking at different people. I wanted to first remind people that the media sometimes sloppily conflates the two groups as the same, thereby indicting the whole community of color for the actions of some.
As a near-pacifist, I can’t condone such rioting. However, as someone who hasn’t just had another one of my people, or community, or family gunned down on the street and left for dead for 4.5 hours – I’m going to choose to remain silent and try to listen. I know that personally, whenever I hear of another gay or lesbian or transgender person killed on the streets – in some ways, I feel like it happened to me too. I imagine many women, when they hear of an attack on another woman, there may be a sense of loss of safety for all women. So too, when there’s a barrage of dead black men and boys on our streets, I think we can all imagine what affect that will have on a community.
I’m going to be real cautious about pointing fingers and blithely exercising my superiority in the face of that tragedy. I’m also going to refer back to my childhood history lessons. When white people riot in the face of oppression it’s called “Patriotic.” In fact, we have a whole political party named after it. The Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was all about Taxation without Representation, and our forefathers ransacked three ships in the harbor and tossed hundreds of chests of tea into the water. It’s like ransacking the Best Buys of the day, and destroying public property. But they were heroes. They also hid their identities by dressing as Native Americans to do so.
I remember Southern States rising up against the North, in name, over the “sovereignty of states.” 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. That’s only 24,000 less deaths than all other US conflicts combined. And yet, to this day, many Southern Whites will still maintain it was a “just” cause. 640,000 dead. But let’s wag our privileged fingers at the Ferguson community for stealing TV’s and ransacking stores in the face of one of their sons lying dead on the street for 4.5 hours.
I remember Stonewall. For days, several streets in Greenwich village were shut down. Police were barricaded away by Drag Queens and Kings. Windows were shattered with bricks – yes the gay community shattered our own windows. We were tied of the police raping and abusing Drag Queens and Kings. We were tired of the raids that sought to humiliate and keep us down. It only reached page 4 of the papers. But the LGBT civil rights movement was born.
I remember Hanukkah. We focus on the miracle of oil, and seven days and nights of light. But it’s a story about violent revolution in the face of a worldly power that is killing and restricting the lives of Jews in their own land. But we share that story as religious scripture; but another community here, riots in the face of their people lying dead in the street by authority, and we chide them.
Anger and rage don’t always make rational sense. They’re not always helpful. But in the face of seeing one of our children lying dead in the street for 4.5 hours, I’m not sure it’s rationale to expect a neat, clean, tidy, logical response for a very long time.
So we listen. We don’t seek to judge. We don’t seek to quickly hide from the difficulty of a trial. We don’t seek to wash away another’s pain. We don’t condemn a child for their own death. We don’t blame parents for bad parenting by allowing their kid to have a toy gun – again in a state that has an Open Carry law. We don’t accept a system that ignores, time after time, the application of the death penalty for petty misdemeanors. We don’t ignore the fact that European police have a tiny, tiny fraction of the rate of police shootings that we have in our nation (in the single digits in many countries annually) – and we don’t pretend that that difference doesn’t matter.
In our places of privilege we don’t lift up, nurture, defend or protect the Herod of our age – institutional racism – that witnesses the tragic death of black man after black man at the hands of white authority. Some of these cases, the officer may legitimately be found not guilty. Let it go to trial, and we’ll see.
We use our safe positions of privilege to listen. We take the risk that maybe the whole system is unfair and that unfairness means another race of people’s lives are at greater risk. And we allow that possibility to seep in. If we can actually listen, from the place of compassion, we may imagine new ways to live more fairly and more safely. But if we believe the status quo is fair and just; if we believe there are always two sides but we’ll only ever listen to the side of the power and authority, then we’ll continue to see the death of another life, and another life – while we remain safe in our places of privilege.