Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Black & White? Reflections for MLK 2020.

Most of us want life to be simple.

Complexity and ambiguity challenge our comfort. They force us to acknowledge that we can't control things, that in fact, we can't even entirely understand things.

It's often only in retrospect that we see clearly events and forces that shaped our lives or our world. We now "get" the impact of our decisions on the environment, the economy, and our health. We see now the radically inclusive message of MLK, even though in his final years, he was widely hated. His disapproval rating was higher than Trump's! 85%

 I have to remind myself that when I was the same age my adult children are now, there was no Google, no cell phones, no microwaves for that matter! There was no legal gay marriage, no podcasts, no Twitter. Some things really were more simple. But even though nostalgia may blur our perspective, simple is not necessarily better.

Much of Western religion is dualistic: human/God; good/evil; spiritual/material. Eastern religions have become increasingly popular in the West as humanity embraces the unitary and organic dimensions of life.

This article by Fr. Richard Rohr makes the distinction from a Christian perspective and argues that Jesus was the first non-dualistic teacher. He writes:

The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets. Yet depth and breadth of perception should be the primary arena for all authentic religion. How else could we possibly search for God?. 

Some of us do better than others with uncertainty. I love mystery, not-knowing, and the quest for truth. I believe faith is dynamic, not static. That's why the UU faith appealed to me in my early thirties and why I became a minister. I am comfortable with not having the answers and with others who feel the same.

To me, Unitarian Universalists are people who don't see everything in Black & White, but who acknowledge the shades of grey in life, in community, in relationships. We are known for the tendency to critique ourselves, but there's a difference between self-criticism and self-destruction.

Some of us have become alarmed and disaffected over the past few years.

New voices have emerged that question our UU faith's efforts at anti-racism. Not only do these voices proclaim that the UU Association past and present is riddled with White Supremacy, they apparently reject any person or any voices who question their approach. You are either in agreement with their assessment, their remedies and their vocabulary or you, too, are part of the system of white supremacy. I've thought, prayed upon and contemplated all of this for months. My current position is that things have gone awry. Instead of providing tools and inspiration for anti-racism, we have vastly increased polarity, paranoia, and discord.

What wasn't triggered by the 2017 resignation of Peter Morales and the consequent controversies became crystal clear after the publication and distribution of the Gadfly Papers, a book that questions the narrative of ARAOM and CRT and the attendant behaviors of its proponents. Here's a link to the book.

And here's a book by a UU layperson: Click here

I don't disagree with the spirit of CRT or ARAO agendas. They are legitimate but not universally accepted among the approaches to racial injustice (and other forms of marginalization).

 I strongly disagree with those self-appointed white saviors who've designated themselves judge and jury toward anyone who differs with them. The censorship and backlash toward Todd Ekloff over a pamphlet-type book he wrote is, given the authoritarianism and anti-democratic forces at play in the wider world, chilling.

Google "gadfly papers" and you'll find sermons and essays in support and in dissent.

There are others who feel as I do. Some express feeling ostracized or silenced. Many of us have voluntarily left spaces in which we feel we can't be honest. Several have given up membership in the UUMA...a consequential decision.

I feel primarily a deep sadness. I feel so alienated from colleagues and from our Association.

It would be easy to just go along with the majority who have discovered and adopted this way of understanding whiteness and who seem to have found the answers. But I can't do that and maintain integrity.

I will likely stay out of the argument since it is clear the majority of my colleagues do not welcome my perspective. Still, it's painful. It is painful to be judged, dismissed and scolded. The majority would reply that any pain I feel is negligible compared to what they call "harm" in the form of microaggressions and discrimination people of color among us have felt. Fair point! Nor would my argument that I have devoted my 25 years in ministry to racial justice and equity carry any weight; in fact, me pointing out the many endeavors and projects that I have undertaken just prove my white supremacy and my cluelessness.

As a Jungian, I can't help seeing the projection at work here.

The excoriation of fellow clergy, the disregard for our congregations (who pay our salaries and support our families) and the dismissiveness toward any alternative positions is frighteningly like that we hear from extremists and zealots. The failure to acknowledge and integrate our own shadow is what creates these fanatical and polarized positions.

We all have within us hatred, avarice, racism, and tribalism.  We don't like to acknowledge our indifference, our laziness or our callousness. At least I know this is true for me. The incorporation of these shadow parts of myself is, however, essential to my sanity and equanimity, and more importantly to my ministry. Within the congregation I serve are people who espouse CRT  and ARAOM and advocate its path toward anti-racism. In the same congregation are people who need to learn, who are working for justice, who have given decades of their time and large amounts of their money to advance justice. I serve these people. I love all of them and accept them as they are. I can learn from them. Far from seeing my ministry as an endeavor to fix them, I see the pastoral and the prophetic imperative as an obligation to love first, gain their respect and trust, and from there to remind them of how our faith faces injustice.

That includes our history of efforts at anti-racism and anti-oppression. We UUs have had bungles, blunders, and massive failures ( so many that there are books written about them: Here and here and here.) We are the sum of our members: flawed, fumbling and sometimes foolish. But I have found in our congregations more dedicated, authentic, and devoted humans than in any other organization I've ever been part of. We are not the sum of our mistakes. We are the sum of our love, our humanity, our devotion to the good.

I am also prone to projection. In the vehement and divisive arguments about racism that have only grown more central to our faith tradition, I see my own shadow: I can be intractable and confrontational. I enjoy at some level being the contrarian and challenging the assumptions of others. There is within me an extremist, particularly on matters of oppression and on issues of race. I want to believe that I'm right about my liberal views and therefore I don't mind offending people. The reality is that I'm sometimes wrong and also, more importantly, I don't change anyone by my outrage. Only love and patience lead to evolved mindsets.

In the end, we UUs have always come from love. With the exception of a few troubled individuals, we act in good faith, not from agendas of greed, avarice, bitterness or superiority. We assume the best of people rather than look for their flaws. I want us to celebrate all that is good about us and to enlarge upon that, rather than giving in to the impulse to compulsively criticize ourselves and one another and to focus upon what's wrong.

It's not simple. It's not "black and white." It's complex, just as we humans are complex. We who represent the best of liberal faith have allowed ourselves to be decimated and torn asunder. We may look back upon this time as the birth pangs of a new day, or as the time we capitulated and let ourselves be ripped apart.

Friday, November 29, 2019


Invisible Work
Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean only these poems but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work,
about the single mother on welfare I talked to
years ago, who said, “It’s hard.
You bring him to the park, run rings
around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner, and there’s no one
to say what a good job you’re doing, how you were
patient and loving for the ten
thousandth time, even though you had a headache.”
And I, who am used
to feeling sorry for myself because I am lonely
when all the while, as the Chippewa
poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
think of the invisible work that stitches up the world
day and night, the slow, unglamorous
work of healing, the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe and bees
enter and leave their lovers like exhausted Don Juans while owls
and poets stalk shadows, our
loneliest labors under the moon. There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us long
after we have stopped
listening. I stop and let myself lean
a moment against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s
heart. There is no other art.        ...Alison Luterman

To ask what MATTERS is to ask what is of utmost importance to a being. If someone can’t tell you, you can find out, they say, by looking at their checkbook or their calendar. I imagine today it would be their Smart phone.

I would answer the question this way:
I would say both nothing matters AND everything matters.

The word matter is ancient and multi-layered.
Besides substance it also means potential.
It comes from the root as MATRIX and MOTHER
And matrix means, among other things, WOMB.

There is no sense in which we can divorce our theological and philosophical understanding of life and death from the matrix into which we were born. Even if we were to divorce ourselves from that matrix, we would still have a theology based upon rejection, which is still a belief system. Everyone believes in something, or as Dylan sang, you have to serve somebody.

So: matter.

For me, when I am practicing contemplation and mindfulness, what does NOT matter is winning the lottery, what kind of car someone drives, titles and honorifics.

What matters is the tear on the cheek of one child, the fate of even one child going hungry or separated from their mother, or getting killed in a school shooting or a bomb blast, being abused or neglected, be it in Syria, at the Mexico border, or here in Tennessee. The well-being of creatures, the worms in the garden, the bees and the owls, one moment of connection, one second of peace. Love matters. Truth matters.

But that is when I am disciplined and diligent. Other times, I go on the web and buy a new sweater.

What matters to you?

Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean only these poems but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work,

Who does this invisible work?

Here’s an example from our own Unitarian heritage:

The day he was taken by the Nazis in Prague, Dr. Norbert Capek preached as usual to his congregation, using metaphor as many Unitarian ministers did in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia. He preached as storm troopers stood in the back of his church.
We all know that this is the worst winter in our history and the ground is terribly frozen. We also know that Spring must come and the seeds now buried will sprout and bloom again.
Of course, the Nazis knew this was code, as it was not Winter but Spring, and the 72-year-old man was arrested and sent to Dachau where he was the victim of cruel medical experiments as well as the gas chamber. For practicing this faith, our faith of freedom and humanitarianism. He never gave up. Even in the camp, he led church services and continued to compose hymns for his fellow. Invisible work.

What we do, and refuse to do, matters. Our attention becomes intention. Our attention is what moves us from intention to action.

Bumper sticker: What you do matters. (Holocaust Museum)

What do you do?

And I, who am used
to feeling sorry for myself because I am lonely
when all the while, as the Chippewa
poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
think of the invisible work that stitches up the world
day and night, the slow, unglamorous
work of healing…

And, words matter.

Words. Like “though” and “intimidated”.
Words like “bad news” and “investigate”.
One word can cause deep wounds, another word can heal and repair.
The word “matter” matters.

Black Lives matter. This movement was brilliant in many ways. The opposite of black lives MATTER is not All Lives Matter. The opposite is Black Lives Don’t Matter. I will tell you that black lives didn’t matter to me for my first few decades of life. I neither lived near nor knew any person of color, other than our housekeeper, Emma, almost nothing was taught us in school even though it was at the height of the Civil Rights movement, nor did my family of origin affirm black lives in any way. I lived about two miles away from the AME church where the impetus for the Mt. Laurel decision was formed. Attention became intention which became ontological results. Nearby is Jacob's Chapel, a stop on the Underground RR as I suspect my family home may have been.

Click here for more on the Mt. Laurel Doctrine.

Jacob's Chapel AME Church. Genesis of Mt. Laurel Decision

The phrase and the movement Black Lives Matter pleads with us to see the myriad ways in which the institutions of this society, this matrix in which we exist, education, government, real estate, religion, law enforcement, justice, health and wellness, even entertainment and the arts, have neglected, trampled over, and treated as less than human persons of color. I find it hard to believe that any educated white person could review their life and not see this, not comprehend the privilege which they have been granted, the doors that were open to them and closed to others, the suspicions placed on others but not on them. We have been trained and have trained ourselves to neither review nor acknowledge these things. Again, only a discipline and a mindfulness will keep us alert to this 

Cain Family Home 1940-2018

There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us long
after we have stopped
listening. I stop and let myself lean
a moment against the blue
shoulder of the air

What this small congregation does matters.  Our intention to love and heal comes through when intention becomes attention and the invisible work of housing, feeding and caring for the least among us. Our attention turns what matters into substances, food, mattresses, conversation, socks and toothbrushes.

Listening matters. Giving our full attention to the other.

How can you pay attention?

The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s heart
There is no other art.

What is the work of your heart? Will you stop long enough to hear it?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019



 - 1927-2019
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is