Abundance was our church theme last month. We talk about our congregational themes with our Religious Education (RE) kids, too. Take a listen to what they said about what our church has an abundance of: chalices, fun, love, stories, kind people… kind people, indeed! I have been inspired this year to witness an abundance of wonderful gifts shared within our 2017-18 “under construction” Religious Education program.
We began the year strong with fully recruited teaching teams for our classes. Then, as Coming of Age mentors were needed or other jobs arose (like needing a rock star handywoman and organizational guru), people flexed and adjusted their commitments as we hoped they would to share their talents to meet the needs of our program and participants. As the year has progressed, our volunteer leaders have worked together and supported one another and their students beautifully. Our fabulous RE Council has been providing leadership as well, and is adapting to the evolving vision and work of the church.
A new kind of “call and response” emerged: when one member of the team had a need and called for help, other members always responded with compassion. And they have stepped forward with heart and thoughtfulness for parents or kids needing additional care, too. It has happened time and time again. We are living out our new mission: Our open and welcoming congregation connects hearts, challenges minds and nurtures spirits, while serving and transforming our community and the world and our core values of connection, inspiration, compassion, and justice. The support from one to another is a gift within our community.
And we see these gifts in our children and youth also. At 9:15, we have programming for all ages (kindergarten through adult – you are welcome to join us!), and that allows a special opportunity for multiage interaction and learning. During one of our stories recently, we had some participants sharing “who they are” in the story of Supriya’s Bowl. From young to old, there were thoughtful responses and patient listening to what others had to say. (We have some really cool 6th graders who were attentive to hearing a 5 year-old’s rationale for how the rice bowl got filled, and who shared their own thoughts with us, too.) When making our blessing bags, the big kids help the little kids with packaging goods and making notes or drawings for our neighbors in need. The Coming of Age youth volunteered at the church work day outside recently, raking leaves, moving stumps and rocks, etc. to beautify and winterize our campus; our Sunday worship chime ringers and chalice lighters are children and youth; when the multigenerational choir sings, our children and youth are giving to the church. You’ll soon see the pageant with (hopefully) a good amount of kid participation. All of those are special gifts to our community.
We are hearing from families that the kids are bringing their parents to church because they want to be here! And why not?
Star Wars or Harry Potter yoga for all ages at 9:15
YRUU revitalization for 10th-12th graders
Neighboring Faiths curriculum, expanding horizons of 7th-8th graders
And so much more… every class has awesome stuff happening!
Plus, youth CONference attendance continues to grow
All of that takes volunteers – people who are sharing their time and talent – with UUCA. Presence is one of the greatest gifts a person can give or receive. We in RE have received many gifts this year, and we are grateful to all of you in the RE roles and in the many other ways our church is served by all of you. You are a gift.
And on that note, another important gift we can give and receive is affirmation. We have created a new bulletin board in Sandburg Hall to share that gift in our community. Like a little free library, we invite you to take or to leave a gift of affirmation. This is open to anyone: member, friend, regular or first-time visitors, youth, adult, or children. See more at the big GIFT bulletin board near the main office.
Despair is my private pain Born from what I have failed to say failed to do failed to overcome. Be still my inner self let me rise to you let me reach down into your pain and soothe you. I turn to you to renew my life I turn to the world the streets of the city the worn tapestries of brokerage firms crack dealers private estates personal things in the bag lady’s cart rage and pain in the faces that turn from me afraid of their own inner worlds. This common world I love anew as the lifeblood of generations who refused to surrender their humanity in an inhumane world courses through my veins. From within this world my despair is transformed to hope and I begin anew the legacy of caring.
Resistance. What’s that about? I think we all have an idea. I push, you push back, right? You get in my way. You refuse to comply.
It’s a power dynamic, but subtler than outright opposition, at least at first, isn’t it? Often that’s because the party doing the resisting is at some disadvantage to the one they oppose. The other may be bigger, stronger, better funded, and deeply ensconced in a system constructed to keep them right where they are, calling the shots at the top of the heap.
And once perched there, it is their way, a la the Borg of Star Trek, to flaunt their power and warn us that “resistance is futile.” And yet, as movements of liberation have learned across the ages, in truth it hardly ever is. Resistance accomplished with persistence, fueled by integrity and compassion, done with creativity and grit can undo the Borgs and the bullies, however fearsome they may seem to be.
To enter a conversation today about how that might be I’m inviting us to enter a great old story celebrated right now by our Jewish neighbors. It has its own cautions and challenges but also important lessons for the path of resistance.
It takes us back some 2,200 years to a tumultuous time for the Jewish people when they had to endure a succession of foreign despots with different designs on Palestine. And as you can imagine, as each arrived he found the Jews inconveniently opposed to his program. Each designed his own strategy to get around this. Some oppressed them, others sought to co-opt Jewish leaders and had some success, though many still opposed them.
The most radical program came from a Syrian named Antiochus Epiphanes, who in 168 BC sent soldiers to take over Jerusalem. Many Jews chafed at the increasing restrictions on Jewish practices that Antiochus ordered, culminating with widespread killings and the installation of Greek idols in the temple.
In response, a clan of Jewish priests known as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, then withdrew from Jerusalem and planned a revolt. In time, the revolt devolved into a civil war that took in not only the Maccabees and the soldiers, but also Jews who had adopted Greek practices. After a series of battles, the Maccabees prevailed.
On returning to Jerusalem, they discovered the Temple to be in shambles. The first book of Maccabees, an apocryphal scripture that was never included in the Jewish Bible, describes in detail how the Temple was restored. It was then that leaders declared that an eight-day festival of “Hanukkah,” which translates from Hebrew simply as “dedication,” should be held to purify and consecrate the temple.
The bit about oil found in a vessel that was enough to keep the flame on the menorah burning for a day lasting the full eight days of the festival is a nice bit of theater attributed to creative rabbis some seven centuries after the event. Still, it nicely turns the focus of the story away from a bloody civil war and back toward a more profound message that resistance can pay off, and even more that oppressed peoples have a right to self-determination, or, as our choir just reminded us, a right to freedom to be who they are.
It’s a message that’s especially fitting at this time when so many people in different settings are struggling for freedom and self-determination but also seeing some fruits of resistance.
I think, for example, of the recent senatorial election in Alabama. Much has been said about the political ramifications of this shift, which are huge. But as I watched election returns last week my thoughts turned to the celebrations that I attended two years ago of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Selma.
I remember at the time being deeply moved, standing on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, site of the bloody 1965 attack on civil rights workers, packed in with a racially diverse crowd laughing and singing freedom songs. But there was a wistfulness there, too. To be honest, there’s not much to modern-day Selma.
Yes, its leadership is African-American, but economically it’s a shell of what it once was, as are many communities with African-American majorities in Alabama. Yes, freedom came with the Voting Rights Act, but only freedom of a sort. Political and economic leadership still lies mostly in the hands of whites, and blacks continue to suffer.
But as the election returns rolled in last Tuesday, it became clear that black voters in numbers unprecedented in Alabama history were turning the election away from one man, a candidate of the white power structure who pined for a pre-Civil War U.S., and toward another a man, a candidate of the insurgents, who had successfully prosecuted men who in 1963 bombed a Birmingham church, killing four black girls, one of the defining outrages of the Civil Rights era.
And it seemed a bit of cosmic justice that it was Dallas County, home of Selma, that pushed that ex-prosecutor over the top in that Senate race. Not exactly the victory of the Maccabees, perhaps, since among other things we can’t know how all this will play out in the long run. But for a moment it offers us a window into the power of resistance, of how even against long odds people can make a change.
And from here I want to point to one more movement of resistance that is roiling our nation. It may not have reached its Maccabees moment yet, but with the momentum, it’s gathered so far there is reason to hope. I speak of the campaign against sexual harassment and abuse.
I like the way that Time magazine frames those who have brought the issue before us in its latest “Person of the Year” issue: The Silence Breakers.
Like every campaign for freedom, it is about standing up to people in power. Yet, this one is complicated even further since it’s centered on sex, our most intimate selves, something private and close. Perpetrators learned to use that wish for privacy as a weapon to warn their victims with Bork-like assurance that “resistance is futile.”
It took brave women willing to break the silence, to offer their own stories and risk ridicule, to report the stories of others and risk professional ruin, in order for the story to be told.
The fall-out has been both encouraging and dispiriting. Encouraging in that breaking the logjam of silence has encouraged many women to tell their own stories, opening paths to healing and renewal. New Internet memes – “I believe them” and “Me, too” – have helped amplify the campaign and give confidence to those taking the risk of telling their stories.
The campaign has also dislodged some notorious abusers from positions of power or authority. It’s encouraged men to take stock of their behavior and opened conversations around practices in offices and other organizational settings.
It’s been dispiriting, though, to see some abusers simply take shelter in denial. And while high profile cases make the news, many more stay in the shadows, where unchanged power dynamics put women who voice allegations of abuse at a risk they can’t afford. The work of silence breaking remains, and for those of us, women and men, committed to changing the dynamic, we are challenged to find ways to raise the notion of resistance to another level.
In an essay in Time, the novelist Gillian Flynn writes that as much as she admires the courageous women who raised their voices, in her words, “I don’t feel triumphant, I feel humiliated and angry.”
Along with the stories bravery and perseverance, she writes, this campaign has also surfaced a toxic Internet culture of shaming and degradation and all the boys club abuses that are baked into corporate culture
“Threats to women abound,” Flynn writes. “We are underrepresented everywhere, underpaid by everyone and underestimated all over.”
All of this comes home to her, she says, when she looks at her children her 3-year-old daughter, who she describes as “fearless, vibrant,” and perhaps even more her “sweet” 7-year-old son.
How to assure that they are neither, in her words, “crushed by this world” nor drawn in one way or another into the cycle of abuse swimming around them? It begins, she says, with how we choose to raise them.
“My son,” she writes, “recently asked me, ‘Why aren’t there any shirts that say BOY POWER?’”
“I could have talked about male entitlement,” she says, “and the male gaze, the wage gap and Weinstein. But I thought: If the myriad GIRL POWER shirts are meant to encourage female strength and confidence, a BOY POWER shirt might make male empathy and respect dynamic. There were no BOY POWER shirts, so I had to DIY (do-it-yourself) an iron-on. Now, there’s at least one.”
Resistance has many dimensions. It is in part naming and working to remove signs of oppression wherever we can. It is also work to reframe the ways that we are with each other, owning the stumbles we make, but holding in view like a polestar the truth at the center of our beings: our and each other’s incalculable inherent worth and our and each other’s right to be who we are.
It is the holy flame we each carry that even when dimmed by circumstance endures.
Like Thandeka, we may mourn and despair all that we have failed to say, to do, to overcome, but still within there is a source of renewal and strength, that invites us into new hope, entering the legacy of caring.
Last month, my nephew, Greg, called from Santa Barbara. “Hey, Uncle Dale,” he exclaimed, “I won the lottery!”
“No way,” I said.
“Way!” he said, “I won big time. No kidding.”
“That’s great. How much did you win?”
“A lot,” he responded… Long pause…then the punch line. “I was born White in America.”
No, Greg isn’t a White Nationalist. Far from it. Greg realized that he had hit the jackpot by being born White in America.
Greg is a skilled carpenter. Often, he needs to hire an assistant. He drives to the corner in Santa Barbara where day-hires, largely Latino, hang out looking to catch a job. He recognizes that a roll of the dice put him on the hiring end of things, rather than on the street corner hoping to be hired. Greg recognizes the White American privilege that came to him by dint of his birth.
Last year, UUCA named “compassion” and “justice” as core values, and we recently voted to put those words into action by opting in a Special Congregational meeting to become a Physical Sanctuary congregation. We recognized that there are good people in our midst who are in need of temporary protection, and we are lucky enough to have sufficient space in 23 Edwin to host a guest. We collectively announced by that vote: “We can’t turn our backs on those in need, let’s do what our good fortune allows us to do!” I am extremely proud of that congregational decision.
The wheels are rapidly moving in the direction of turning the Sanctuary vision into a reality. Rev. Lisa has recruited a Sanctuary Steering Committee, and they have begun meeting to put together a list of all that must be done to prepare for a sanctuary guest. Lisa and Linda Topp have selected the room and adjoining bath at 23 Edwin that will serve as quarters. A donated washer and dryer have been installed in the basement. Rev. Mark has begun meeting with CIMA (Companeros Immigrantes de las Montanas en Accion), a local action group on behalf of immigrants, to inform them of our Sanctuary program and to learn more about their organization. We have received our first financial contribution from another congregation.
Soon it will be your, and my, turn to help. Let’s do it. Let’s, like nephew Greg, share our collective lottery winnings by aiding someone not so lucky.
Up until now, it’s been an odd autumn for this part of the world, with temperatures hovering around what we’re more accustomed to for September. But in the last week, the early winter grey visited, and daytime highs tumbled to a more seasonal chill. And so it feels like finally, I can settle into the quieter, darker days of this season. As Rebecca Parker puts it, “let us go gently into the night, its dream-drenched, glittering stillness, a haven for our souls.”
Just as the earth takes its rest at this time of year, we need to give ourselves some space from the hectic, screen-centered lives we’ve built for ourselves. So, isn’t it just like the tone-deaf culture of consumerism that floods our lives to urge us instead in this holiday season to make our lives more frantic with rush to buy presents?
Giving should and can be joyful. It is a wonderful gesture that helps us express our gratitude to people we love or with whom we stand in some relationship. But it becomes less so when it’s driven by a sense of fear or obligation. So, let me urge you to look for ways to turn down the pressure: look for gifts of services, rather than things; agree on limits to your purchases, and stick to them; be creative, have fun, and then be done with it.
Leave space for quietness, long walks, or casual, low-pressure gatherings with family and friends. There is a special beauty in these mountains in the winter time. Take time to get to know it. Maybe it’s time to renew an acquaintance with a friend. Look for that which can reconnect you with your life, with what matters, and attend to it.
One of my favorite hymns for this time of year is “Dark of Winter,” #55 in Singing the Living Tradition, by Shelley Jackson Denham. It closes with these words:
“Darkness, soothe my weary eyes that I may see more clearly. When my heart with sorrow cries, comfort and caress me. And then my soul may hear a voice, a still, small voice of love eternal. Darkness, when my fears arise, let your peace flow through me.”
“Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time under the hoof of the beast above broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life like April.”
An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
A year after the last presidential election we can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber at the start of his famous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Arriving in the early 1920s in “Libya Hill,” the home of his boyhood (a thinly veiled reference to a place you know well), Webber discovers a boom going on.
Real estate speculation is making many people rich but not compassionate; in fact, the opposite. Everyone seems to be out for the main chance, corporate chieftains are martinets who seek to create needs, not satisfy them, and, as one reviewer put it, “salesmanship is the enemy of truth.”
What’s more, Webber discovers himself to be persona non grata for an earlier novel he wrote that exposed embarrassing secrets of his family and friends. Eventually, circumstances lead him to high-tail it out of town.
Soon afterward, the town finds its comeuppance with the arrival of the Great Depression, which wipes out much of the elusive wealth accumulated in previous years. And Webber takes off to Europe to sulk and brood. //
With the stock market last week soaring to new heights while tax legislation is moving through Congress that promises to enrich the wealthy, multiply the nation’s ballooning debt and punish lower-income Americans, the picture Wolfe drew nearly a century ago is beginning to feel eerily familiar.
Add to that the culture of lying and deceit that is settling in in the halls of power in this country, and the perfidy and flagrant violation of trust of powerful men who blithely dismiss, diminish or deny well-documented allegations of assault and abuse, and we can hardly be blamed for, like George Webber, wanting to check out.
All the more reason, then, that we attend to the message that Wolfe offers to close his novel. Webber later discovers in Europe the same ills that led him to leave his home town, and on returning finds cause for hope. As the nation began to emerge from the Depression, its leaders wanted to cling to the past, Wolfe writes, “but they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again. America had come to the end of something and to the beginning of something else.”
As he put it in the excerpt you heard earlier, “pain and death will always be the same,” and still there is a force within us “growing like a flower . . . coming into life like April.”
We are well aware of all the forces of division at work now, centered as they are in fear and the scape-goating of vulnerable people, and we can see them fueling movements toward separatism here and abroad.
All this is alarming and also nothing new. As historians point out, the last century offers chapter and verse on how easy it is for separatism to take root and how it can lead to monstrous evil. But here’s the caveat: can, but needn’t. There is nothing inevitable about any of this, and there are lessons for us in how we might nudge history in a different direction by digging back in and recommitting to values of compassion and hope.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote about some of these learnings in a slim book entitled Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century. Here are a few:
Do not obey in advance. We want to be good people and give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. But, Snyder says, we need to be wary of he calls “anticipatory obedience,” where we compromise our principles at a new leader’s bidding. What feels like a gesture of respect can end up being interpreted as a greenlight for leaders to do whatever they want.
Defend institutions. It is easy to criticize our fallible institutions, Snyder says, but it’s worth remembering that they were created to preserve our freedom and dignity, and if they are to do that they need our help. They do not protect themselves.
“The mistake,” he says, “is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” They can, and they do.
Take responsibility for the face of the world. “The symbols of today,” he says, “enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swasticas and other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
Stand out. As Snyder puts it, “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.” And that doesn’t necessarily means standing alone. Part of what we here exist to do is to help you find in community the hope, the faith, the courage to live into and proclaim your values.
Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Steer clear of rhetoric. Demand facts. As Snyder puts it, “it is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.”
Make eye contact and small talk, and not just with your buddies. “This is not just polite,” he says. “It is part of being a citizen and a responsible member of society. It is also a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down social barriers, and understand who you should and should not trust.”
Be as courageous as you can. We each have our own limits to what we can do, yet even a little courage offered at the right time can have a stronger influence on events than we expect.
Learning the lessons of history is good practice. It teaches us the danger behind what Dictionary.Com declared as the word of year for 2017 – complicit: “choosing to be involved in an illegal or wrongful act.” Perhaps it’s a sign of a turning at work now that the Web site reported that there had been multiple spikes in the number of people looking up that word this year. Dictionary.com speculated that this may be, “Because of noteworthy stories of those who have refused to be complicit in the face of oppression and wrongdoing.”
In the face of this, some of us will find our way to brave public acts. Others of us will be involved in what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”
It is rising each day and putting our hearts and the little bit of genius that we are blessed with to work for what my colleague Victoria Safford calls “the larger Life and larger Love that some call holy, some call God, some call History, and others call simply larger than themselves.”
In her essay, “The Small Work and The Great Work,” Safford tells of a conversation she had with a woman who is a psychiatrist at a college health clinic. “We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in a dormitory,” she wrote. “My friend the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally but deeply, fully – as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.”
“At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow, or making a new covenant. She spoke of her vocation, and of yours and mine.
“She said, ‘You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do – what I am called to do – is plant myself at the gates of Hope.
“Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love.’”
In one way or another, we all stand at those gates, bringing what gifts we have, beckoning and urging. It is, says Victoria Safford, “a sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle.”
It is the place in Seamus Heaney’s poem where “hope and history rhyme,” where we give up the denial that leaves us saying, “Oh, I’m sure everything will be all right,” as well as the frantic despair that tells us that the world is going to hell so we might as well let it implode.
Thomas Wolfe was right: we can’t go home again. The 0ld scripts that gave us comfort are outdated and need to be rethought, but the principles, the values that underlie them do not. They are soil from which something new must struggle to be reborn.
Meanwhile, those of us called to a larger life, a larger love, don’t have the luxury of waiting for that birth. We must be its midwives. There is no manual for how we’re going to do this. We’re all amateurs here. But we have the tools we need. Staying in touch. Listening, Learning. Honing the tools of democracy. Honoring the worth and integrity of every human being. Marshalling the power of our collective trust in common knowledge. Standing at the gates of hope. Being as courageous as we can. And when the time comes, when the moment is right: to push!
It is said that Philip Larkin was uncomfortable with the fuss that was made of his poem, “An Arundel Tomb,” especially its famous final line – “What will survive of us is love.” He felt that readers who pulled the words out of the context of the poem mistook his intent. If you recall, Larkin’s poem finds irony in those words being the lasting legacy of this couple, since he suspects that they didn’t choose them, in fact probably never saw them, that they were likely added by the sculptor to fill out a phrase of Latin on the base.
“Time,” he says, “has transfigured them into untruth. The stone finality they hardly meant has come to be their final blazon, and to prove our almost-instinct almost true.”
His words – “almost-instinct, almost true” – tip the reader off to Larkin’s wariness that we take the sentimentality of that phrase too seriously.
And it’s true. Sugary sweet sentiment can so easily distract us from complicated truths that are harder to hear and yet crucial to our understanding. When the music swells and the happy talk starts, we need to be careful of how far we are carried along.
Still, it’s interesting to reflect that when a gravestone marking Larkin’s death was added to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in 2016 the final words of “An Arundel Tomb” were inscribed there.
I wonder what Larkin would have thought of that. Was this a “stone finality that he hardly meant?” I don’t think so. I think it’s a fitting epitaph, for I think he was referring not to some mawkish sentimentality but to the deepest, strongest, most hopeful part of each of us, the love that casts out fear, the love that awakens us to the meaning of our lives.
In the end, I think he was right: when we add up the successes, the failures, the joys, the foibles of our brief lives, all that will have mattered is how we gave ourselves to love. When we look for a source of hope, we will find it in love. When we are called to rise from defeat or to find a way forward after loss, we will find it in the embrace of love. When we look for the strength finally to push, we will discover it in love.
Our task, then, is not to check out, not to let ourselves be discouraged, but to dig back in, to reaffirm the truths our hearts proclaim and find in them the hope that carries us on. Let us make of that our epitaph.