Posts Tagged Meg Barnhouse
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/5/18. It looks at conversation as a core religious practice, at diversity as a social value, and at the increasingly fragmented extremes of contemporary political life.
Happy August everyone. It’s good to be back in the pulpit after my July break. We just heard a story from Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister serving our congregation in Austin. She’s talking about raising her sons with questions, and conversations, rather than them learning to talk atfolks, and to avoid talking at length without hearing the other. There’s a little bit of a jab at how so many boys are raised to become men who talk at, and talk at length. But it’s more about raising the next generation to learn to strive to be in conversation with those around them. Conversation – the bedrock of community. It’s essential to meaning, to connection, to understanding our neighbor. If loving our neighbor is a core religious principle, then conversation is a core religious practice.
Our nation, and our communities, seem to be drifting away from free dialogue, from conversations toward talking at one another. I don’t mean to suggest that every extreme notion, every hateful ideal seemingly plaguing us daily, should be normalized and respected. There are apologists aplenty for every hateful thing these days, and they deserve censure. Separating children from their parents on the border has no rationale based in merit or ethic; white supremacy is alive and well on our streets, and on the internet, and should be instantly and loudly rebuked. The media is clearly not the enemy of the people, and anyone espousing such reveals themselves as a fan of tyranny – that is a long-established fact if we make even a cursory look at the history books.
But I’m increasingly seeing otherwise normal views and opinions from traditional conservatives, everyday centrists, and progressives on the left, being blown out as radical ideas or extremist in perspective. Or ideas that once were a given, are now put into question. Talking points become wielded ateach other, much like our story where one kid speaks at length without making room for conversation. (Some of my liberal friends can’t seem to find common ground with some of my progressive friends, over the slightest difference of perspectives.)
And worse, views that are in the range of “normal” get framed as crazy. Just this week I’ve seen or heard TV, News, or social media decry the idea that ‘should someone working full time be paid enough to afford their rent’ as a radical left notion…. radically Leftist, to be able to work for a living. We now have the ability to 3D print plastic guns and there is a sizeable contingent that fervently believe blocking that, is a threatto their first and second amendment rights; as if not being able to trace killers were suddenly a social good, or not being able to screen known criminals were in our best interest. And apparently now, funding election security has become a partisan issue – as if the sanctity of our democratic process is suddenly a debatable point. This is not normal, and it should remain abnormal. But for all the rest, I think we have some work on our hands in reknitting the social fabric, for the common good. Conversation is a core religious practice.
I was talking with a Canadian colleague back in June while working on one of our UUA continental committees, and I casually made the old melting pot metaphor that most of us grew up hearing as normal. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I knew it was going to be problematic. The old goal of everyone coming to America and melting into one common identity, as if we were some primordial soup, was progressive in its day, but it’s regressive for us now. It doesn’t leave room for folks who were here before the US; it doesn’t leave room for folks who were brought here against their will. And especially saying that to a Canadian who has a different sense of national identity, it wasn’t a helpful phrase. She suggested what they prefer in Canada, when they are talking about people coming together – they say making a mosaic together.
Now for the more cynical of us – I grew up in New Jersey, and I lived in New York for 15 years now – I know cynical. The cute phrases can make our eyes roll. But in our current climate where the absurd and hateful is given free press, and the normal and kind is called radical, I’m going to make room for any cute phrase that gives us a chance for imagining a new way. Mosaics are a better metaphor for both a national and a community roadmap.
The theme for this month, is Unity and Diversity. Each week this month we’ll reflect on what it means to be a people of Unity and a people of Diversity. How do we do both? When we build mosaics in arts, or on our bathroom tiles, we take a range of shapes and colors and blend them together to create a broader picture. What came before is still there, and its uniqueness is used to craft something new – unity and diversity. The melting pot ideology that informed my grandparents generation left my family speaking only English. My mother grew up hearing her grandparents speaking Italian, and her step-father speaking Spanish, but none of it stuck by adulthood, because her mother wanted to ‘help her become American’ – which meant then, onlyspeaking English. …I’m lesser for it. My grandmother had the best of intentions, but the melting pot metaphor hurt my family, and stole from me part of my heritage and culture. That shouldn’t be normal.
The image in the news of white people screaming at people to speak English in America, is the logical conclusion of a weaponized form of the melting pot. It’s also not normal – it’s a form of social sickness – it’s the inversion of loving our neighbor, that all religions teach us. It’s also an extreme form of talking atone another, rather than seeking conversation.
In many ways, it comes down to this: We have a quote at the top of our order of service from Audre Lorde that reads, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” At the founding of our nation, we valued freedom, liberty, and justice for all – but the for all part meant mostly white male landowners – and of course heterosexual. That for all part would expand bit by bit over the decades – slowly. But we didn’t yet have in our national identity a sense that diversitywas a value we ascribed to – or celebrated. Diversity wouldn’t really become a national value until the 1960s (at best.) I never grew up in a world where that word wasn’t seen as a positive – in the broadest sense. But that’s comparatively new to our national identity. Valuing diversity seems normal to us now, but it wasn’t always so, and it appears that part of our nation wants to go back to a time when it wasn’t valued. As hate speech, and hate politics, become normalized at the highest level of our government, it’s increasingly coming under fire. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
If conversation is a core religious practice, we come now to our second core religious practice – developing the muscles that help us to recognize, accept and celebrate diversity, to celebrate our differences. The kneejerk toward sameness is more than unhealthy; it is dangerous for our neighbors. And as our world becomes smaller and smaller in this era of globalization, straining for sameness is dangerous for our nation and our planet. We’re all human, but we’re not all the same; and seeking to force everyone to melt into yoursense of identity, has never been the answer. We shouldn’t be treated less for our cultural background, and we shouldn’t ignore our cultural differences either, they are who we are.
Our central values change over time. Justice for all has become wider and more mature as we have developed as a people. Diversityhas become a moraland an ethic, and we are better for it. Audre Lorde reminds us to not only accept, and value, but to celebrateour differences, for they are praiseworthy. The art of mosaics only come about through those differences placed together. We as a people change and grow over time, and how we see and understand the world is circumscribed by the tenor of our philosophy, our education, and our religious wisdom. Do we hear in the news about a government sponsored “Religious Liberty Task Force” and know it to mean a body that will protect the rights of marginalized religious groups like Muslims, Sikhs and Jews (who still suffer under anti-Semitism in broad daylight,) or will it become religious and political code for ensconcing the religious bigotry of an already overly empowered and privileged extremely conservative and regressive form of fundamentalism that borders on religious law – the very opposite of what our nation was founded on? Doublespeak, and political grandstanding should not be wedded with true religious life, and as spiritual people, we need to remain stalwart against such travesties as the anathema they are. We must celebrate our differencesand not seek to replace spiritual righteousness with an empty monopoly of privilege. (Remember in the original Hebrew, “biblical righteousness” implied community, it meant solidarity with all the people, not the stridency of those already with power.) The stridency of poweris a cult form of Christianity, and holds no spiritual depth, or meaning.
We change and grow over time, as individuals and as a people. To stay with the general art metaphor that comes about from thinking of mosaics, art history reflects this growth. Classical art was often an expression of things as they were, studies in light and dark, studies in form, studies in contrasts and dualities. Impressionism would come along and rock the art world, as a study in how things appearedto the artist. Perspective and location all of sudden mattered. Modernism would argue that there was still one central truth, but we all saw it from our own understanding. Post-modernism (now 30 years old at least – wow), would radically say there were multiple truths simultaneously. Radical for Western philosophy, but plain as day when looking at our global world.
Balancing on the theological cusp between modernism and post-modernism, the Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church would describe theology, spirit, and God as a Cathedral of All Souls. Each window in the cathedral was different, from clear, to mosaics that reflected all the world religions. He would suggest that God’s Light would emanate the same through each window, but each window would reflect it in accordance with it’s particular flavor. There is still one truth, but we each understand it according to our perspective and location in the cathedral. It’s a little like the story of the elephant and the blind men, each describing the part of the elephant they touch, as if it were the whole or essential elephant. They all have a piece of the puzzle, but arguing over which was right, as if all the rest were wrong, is a clear example of what Audre Lorde cautioned us against. Learning to celebrate our differences brings us closer to an intimation of what we can not see ourselves alone.
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.