So, welcome to our 2020-’21 church year!
If you thought last year was crazy and disruptive, get ready for the one ahead, what with an escalating COVID pandemic, an epochal election season, extraordinary economic turmoil, and social upheaval as Americans begin to come to terms with the consequences of our longstanding national sin of racism.
And all that has consequences for us as a people of faith. Kept from meeting at our beautiful campus, we are turning to technology to continue the transformative work of connecting hearts, challenging minds, nurturing spirits as we seek to serve and transform our community and the world. We’re still in the middle of figuring out what that looks like, even as we do it: as they say, building the plane as we fly it.
It is in many ways frightening, stressful, and disorienting to be caught in the middle of this. But in truth, it is also an amazing time to be alive, to be present to all of this. We remember that it is at times of turmoil that transformational change, long-overdue change is possible, and we hope to be part of that change. To do that, though, each of us needs to find a way to name and affirm what gives us hope and brings us wholeness and to be in its service.
A couple of weeks ago in worship, I invited you to consider these words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was duty. I worked – and behold, duty was joy.” What is the duty that brings you joy? And how can you enlist yourself in its service?
I can see different ways that these words apply to my life, but lately I’ve found a way that it applies to how I engage in the challenging work of coming to terms with race. Like many of you, my heart aches at all the ways that I see racism tearing at the lives of Black people, those I know and those I don’t. The outpouring of support in recent months for the Black Lives Matter movement encourages me. And yet, given what I know of America’s intransigence at ever confronting the legacy of racism, the path to meaningful change feels awfully steep. Other than simply stewing over this, what do I do?
I recognize the fraught place in which I stand: an older, cis-gendered white male heaped with privilege. I could comfortably turn aside from this challenge: many do. But it is plain to me that I could never be at peace with that choice. My heart won’t let me. So, again, what do I do?
We know that many white people, awakened to this injustice are quick to waltz in and offer a solution. It’s what we do, infused as we are with a culture of white supremacy. We’re the ones in charge, right? We can fix this. Actually, no. We are, in fact, clueless: too preoccupied with ourselves to be of much use to anyone. Until we’re ready to listen.
And it’s here that Tagore’s words come back to me: It comes to understanding our duty. To be of service, to be of use to the movement of Black Lives Matter, we need to be present to receive, then to accept what we receive and let it work on us, let it change us. This is a duty that no one imposed on me; it is a duty that my heart declares, that is core to my identity. And a way I can frame it is with our first principle: I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
If I hold to that principle, I need to learn to get over myself and attend to the other, listen to those under the knee of oppression, and commit myself to helping to undo that oppression. As Mohandas Gandhi put it, we must be, we must embody the change we want to see in the world.
In recent weeks, I’ve been working at listening, receiving so that when I act it will be from a place of greater understanding. And it does give me hope, and not only hope but joy, joy in the conviction that I am living aligned with my values, living fully, authentically. I have no expectation that change will come tomorrow, but I do trust that I am walking the path to real change, and in the company of those committed to this change. Each step takes me a little further. I look forward to walking with you.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister