How Can I Know I Am Growing?

It’s just like what happens in Flatland. You are a square, a circle, a triangle, and what you know is how to scurry about doing your flat business in your flat world. You know left-right and you know forward-back. What you DON’T know—what you can’t even imagine—is up-down. Until a sphere comes, crashes your life. Wake-up call from the third dimension. From that moment forward, nothing can ever be as it was….

And so it was for me when I was in high school and early college. Faith—which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—had, at that time in my life, a particular style to it. Faith for me then was a matter of relationships, of fitting in. That’s what my church community taught: power in unity. Preachers laid down the law and I accepted it; authority was outside me. If you asked me why I believed as I did, I would have experienced this as a threat, not a friendly attempt to engage.

Left-right, forward-back. Flat business in a flat world. But then, one evening in the library of my church, I had a Bible shoot-out with a Disciples of Christ believer who was all of ten years older than me. He had a beard and I did not. He had a car and a girlfriend and I did not. But what I had was the truth as my Church of Christ preacher preached it, and I laid it on thick. One verse after another proving to him why, if you weren’t Church of Christ, you weren’t going to heaven. But he was laying it on thick too. He was giving as good as he got. At one point, while I was gabbing away, a part of me stepped back to survey the big picture unfolding and I was just disgusted. This is true religion? This is “love one another”?

A sphere was crashing my Flatland naivete…

Although I don’t want to give the impression that the transformation of my faith style into a different one—my progress towards greater spiritual maturity—was instantaneous. Other stuff nudged at me too, over the course of years. How my Church of Christ preacher said that my beloved Baba was going to hell because she had been baptized through sprinkling rather than full immersion. Really? God is that much of a ritualistic stickler—the God of Jesus, who happened to flout ritual and purity laws all the time?

That was another huge nudge, and so was reading the Koran and the Tao Te Ching and the atheistic work of Albert Camus, The Plague. So were the entire religion and psychology and occult sections of my neighborhood used book store. I was that irritating customer who sits right in front of the shelf you’re trying to look at and hogs the space with his nose stuck in a book. I read about quantum mechanics and complexity theory. I read about Esalen and transpersonal therapies. I read about shamanism and Tarot and witchcraft. I read everything by Alan Watts and felt so good swimming in Zen.

All of these, nudging me to a place where faith was not so much an experience of unity with other like-minded folks as it was an experience of integrity. I had been a spiritual conformist; now I was a critic. I would come home to my parents during the weekend and announce that God was dead. At least the God I used to believe in. That God was dead and so was the Bible and so was Jesus. There was just so much to reject, and it felt GOOD. It felt like I was finally coming into my own.

This was around the time I switched my college major to philosophy and entered the stream of that tradition. I took a graduate degree in it and then taught college myself. But the experience that most reinforced my integrity-based faith stance was the Unitarian Universalist congregation that I started going to soon after my daughter was born. My wife at the time and I wanted Sophia to grow up in a community that practiced positive values like the Seven Principles. We wanted her to grow up in a community that drew wisdom from all lands and all times. Above all, we wanted her to grow up in a community that used its communal power to nurture not conformism but individuality. Don’t just give me left-right or forward-back for my spiritual life. Give me up-down too. Open up a third dimension.

Open things up!

And I thought that things were incredibly opened up! Until I went to Unitarian Universalist seminary and realized, for one thing, that I was incredibly rigid in my attitude towards Christianity. I mean, give me shamanism and Tarot and quantum mysticism but NOT the Bible! I was still a Biblical literalist but in reverse: all the claims which, when taken literally, are absurd, I took as evidence of the Bible’s worthlessness. I was apparently unable, at the time, to understand that you can take something seriously without having to take it literally. I was apparently unable to see as the mystic sees: beneath appearances to the essence, where all the different images and stories from all the different world religious traditions (including Christianity) come together as one core teaching about LOVE.

It was in Unitarian Universalist seminary when I discovered that there was more transformation in store for my faith style. Spiritual maturity didn’t end with integrity. There was more than left-right, back-forward, and even up-down.

I realized this in spades during a worship service at the mother of all contemporary Christian megachurches: Willow Creek Community Church, right outside of Chicago. I was there doing homework. I had been hired right out of seminary by the Unitarian Universalist Association to do a new thing: to create a new kind of Unitarian Universalist congregation for a new day. They wanted me to take an especially close look at what was going on with megachurches. How do they get so big? What are they doing that we could do too, without compromising our values?

It was there when I realized the extent to which the Unitarian Universalists I had known up to that point in time read ahead in the hymnal while they sang, just to be sure nothing was sung that violated personal integrity. I started seeing how this reflects a scrupulosity that gives too much value to surface appearances and misses the Spirit that is just waiting to be unleashed. That day, 12 years ago, I felt a Spirit wash over me in that worship space which I had never before felt in a Unitarian Universalist setting. I felt something real that day, and guess what? I didn’t feel one whit less a Unitarian Universalist for liking it, even though I was not in control of it or could not command it rationally.

In fact, it was then I realized how the faith stance of integrity, which is aggressively critical, works against an experience of the Spirit. It’s just as Parker Palmer says. The Spirit is like a wild animal. It is “tough, resilient, resourceful, … and self- sufficient.” Yet the Spirit is also shy: “Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially if other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth… the wild creature … might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye—but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.”

the spirit

That visit to the Christian megachurch—it made me one hungry Unitarian Universalist, hungry for the Spirit.

From there I went on to found Pathways in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and from the start, the mission was to invite people into the Mystery. Our emphasis was to draw on (in radically open fashion) all Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith (including Christianity) not just because diversity is cool but because a diversity of perspectives is simply what it takes to get as much of a sense of the Mystery as possible. Every tradition (including that of science) is limited in certain ways, yes; but this doesn’t mean worthless. From every tradition, understood in context and within its proper sphere, good things can be learned.

I had become less a critic and more a mystic. And the kind of community power I wanted to harness through my new UU congregation for a new day affirmed integrity, you bet, but even more so it affirmed wisdom. It affirmed both head and heart. Don’t just read books, but practice meditation, practice prayer, practice generosity. Embody your faith. If your faith does not make you laugh or cry beyond just understanding something, if it does not connect you in a real and visceral way to the Life that is larger than any of us can know, it is falling short.

Do you know what the word “maturity” comes from? It comes from the Latin word maturus meaning “ripe, timely, early,” and this is related to mane meaning “early, of the morning.” All of this is to show how maturity comes as a result of waking up, but it’s not a one-time waking up. That’s one of the real findings in my personal spiritual growth story. The road runs ever on. Faith as unity became faith as integrity and then faith as integrity became faith as wisdom. Faith–which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—occurs in stages, and each moment of transformation is like a sphere crashing Flatland. Every time, the wake-up call feels just like that.

From another perspective, however, the whole progression is predictable. It’s not unique to me but descriptive of just what happens as any human spirit ripens. This is affirmed by the scholarly work of Dr. James Fowler, who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University before he retired in 2005. Looking back at my life through the lens of his theory, what seemed chaotic in up-close mode is actually quite orderly.

If you should look back at your life through this same lens, what would you see?

Let’s briefly recap his theory. The way people make meaning in their lives runs through discernable stages. Children 2-7 years of age demonstrate a faith style that is innocent, magical, unrestrained by logical thought. Feelings are more powerful than reasoning could ever be, and children in this faith stage fantasize unendingly. But children grow, and as they do, they move into a second kind of faith style that is no longer fuzzy. It’s sharp-edged, dependent as it is upon authority figures who define the rules and then the rules are upheld literally. “My teacher says….” “If I am good, God will give me what I want…”

Beyond this, you have stage 3 faith, which is the stage I was in during high school and early college. It’s the stage in which meaning-making is tied up with a sense of belonging to a community. You believe what the community believes. Power in unity. James Fowler once said that many adults never transition out of this faith stage and that, in fact, traditional churches work best if most of the folks in the pews stay in this stage! Megachurches are primarily made out of stage 3 folks…

Now, before I say anything about stages 4, 5, and 6, you want to know that, on the one hand, Fowler’s theory is descriptive. It’s not leveling judgment against any of the stages. It’s exactly as the Hindu teacher Vivekananda once taught. “Would it be right,” he asks, “for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth is a sin?” The answer is of course NO, and then Vivekananda says, “To the Hindu, man is not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth.” And that’s what’s on the other hand of Fowler’s theory. The higher the faith stage, the more effective and more inclusive it is in incarnating Love. Love our one source; Love our one destiny; no one left out. That’s the mission; and the higher the faith stage, the more of the mission we can accomplish.

So on to stage 4 faith, faith as integrity, faith as taking a personal stand against what one doesn’t believe. James Fowler says that most people never get there, which is hard to imagine when you think of all the inconsistencies that trouble traditional/conservative religion, or when you just think of mid-life crisis and how it turns everything upside down. Nevertheless, that’s what Fowler has found, and maybe you too—maybe you feel like an ugly duckling with all your questions and doubts and you feel surrounded by people who just can’t join you there.

But here is where you find your people. That’s right: lots of Unitarian Universalists are in stage 4. Here, you are no ugly duckling. You are a swan.

But the road runs ever on, and this is one big reason for the creative ferment in our congregations. You may remember my sermon called “Soul Foodie” where I talked about how some of us are spiritual omnivores and we will eat veggies, we will eat steak, we will eat anything? On the other hand, others of us are stricter in our spiritual diet; we are vegetarian, we are vegan. Put a juicy steak on our plate and it makes us gag. And yet, as Unitarian Universalists we dare to believe that, amid all our diversities, we can sit at the same soul food table. We can worship together and we can serve together. “We need not think alike to love alike.”

It’s very much a stage 5 ideal. At stage 4, people are solidly rooted in integrity. “I can’t participate unless I understand it or like it.” But at stage 5, the wisdom stage, you realize that yes you can participate even if you don’t understand it or like it, because you don’t get stuck on surface appearances, you have a mystic sensibility, you know that the Love that unites us is deeper than all that. You can sing the heck out of all those Easter hymns that go on and on about Jesus’ literal physical resurrection from the dead even though that couldn’t have possibly happened because you realize it to be symbolic, and powerfully symbolic at that. Physically dead people stay dead. But dead hearts and dead communities can rise again, and they do. A mythological creature like the Phoenix doesn’t have to literally exist for us to appreciate what it means and even welcome it as the symbol of this very congregation….

Let me tell you a story about this congregation, and with this I’ll close. When I first came here, bringing my stage 5 faith, I encountered a story that was pure faith stage 6. You see, every faith stage has a growing edge. Faith stage 4, the integrity stage, can be rigid and struggles to be emotionally open and receptive to the Mystery. As for faith stage 5, the wisdom stage, here the struggle is showing up and putting your life on the line for justice. Stage 5 folks are painfully aware of the gap between reality and the vision of a world made fair with all her people one. They are painfully aware of the gap, and they can feel overwhelmed, they can feel so vulnerable to what justice demands.

And this is where the three-dimensional sphere descends, once again, upon Flatland. The wake-up call this time is an opportunity to put your wellbeing on the line, in sacrifice to the greater good. Do that, and you are at the Boddhisattva faith stage, and Dr. King is right there with you, and so is Ghandi, and so is Jesus. Every time you give and it’s scary but you give anyhow, the Boddhisattva heart within you strengthens and you are living into stage 6 faith. Every time.

Here is the faith stage 6 story I encountered, back in 2007. It begins with death. This congregation died in 1951 because it refused to accept an African American into membership. The Board voted no. Why? Probably because of fear. Fear can cause nice people to turn their backs on justice. So the vote was no, and immediately, the minister at the time resigned. The national bodies with which the church was affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklisted the congregation and urged that no minister step in to serve while it was segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owned the building and practically everything else because the congregation was a cheap bunch, sold the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.

The United Liberal Church (what this congregation was called back then) died. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.

But just one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissioned the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and bring back the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, was to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you would read in the congregation’s order of service.

And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.

So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up Beloved Community, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, which is a Boddhisattva power, a power that evil can never overcome.

How can I know I am growing? How can you know?

Bring awareness to the faith stage you are currently at.

Interpret what irritates you not as a statement about someone else’s stupidity but your own strengths and limitations.

Strive to stretch yourself. The mission of “love our one source, love our one destiny, no one left out” urges you never to be satisfied with where you are and to crash every Flatland you find yourself in.

Life is constantly challenging us to make a way out of no way.
The need to put our bodies on the line and ring the building is not just a 1960s thing. It is a today and tomorrow thing.

Live in gratitude.
Live in wonder.
Live in love and courage.

This is how you can know you are growing.

Robert Fulghum’s Faith

He has a lullaby voice and a great booming laugh.

He carries a French horn case instead of a briefcase.

At motels he sometimes registers as “representing” Mother Earth or the Cutting Edge of Reality.

If a Seventh Day Adventist comes to the door, he whips out his stopwatch and says “O.K., but I get equal time.”

As the minister of Edmonds Unitarian Church, in Seattle, where he served 19 years, from 1966 until 1985, he presided at hundreds of weddings, funerals, hospital rooms and mortuaries—he saw a lot of life and a lot of death. Once, while distributing someone’s remains from 2,000 feet over Bellingham Bay, Wash., in a Cessna, he had the ashes fly back in his face. “How do you brush off those ashes?” he asks. “Do you go like this?” (polite dusting gestures) “Or like this?” (frantic pawing).

These days, as a bestselling author of eight books—16 million copies of them, published in 27 languages in 103 countries—you have to be careful when you ask for his autograph. Once, at lunch in Seattle, several people came up and asked for it. One man said the autograph was for his wife, Susan. ”Hi Susan!” the famous author wrote. ”Met your husband at this porno movie house. Nice man!”

He has written a parody of his most famous book, which was immediately suppressed by his publisher, and he called it ”All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in the Alley Behind My House.’’

Robert Fulghum.

He is like drinking the wine of life.

Robert_Fulghum

He has described All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a highly condensed version of a 300-page credo statement, written many years earlier while he was a seminarian—and I have been one of those too. As a seminarian, you enter into the vineyard of Unitarian Universalist tradition and for three or four years basically what you do is pick grapes off the living vine, you gather to yourself the heros of the faith: Faustus Socinus and Hosea Ballou and John Murray and William Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson and so many more. You gather all these beautiful grapes because you want to make your own wine of faith and so you crush them with your hands and you stomp on them with your feet and you filter out the dross and you bottle the juice and you let the magic happen through your thinking and feeling and living.

That’s how the wine of his faith happened, which we now taste whenever we read his books or hear him speak.

It is so sweet. Wine of Unitarian Universalist faith, Robert Fulghum-style.

Why this is important is suggested by a fascinating fact: how his books bridge traditional publishing categories. They can be found next to I’m O.K., You’re O.K. in the self-help section, or in “inspirational” with Rabbi Harold Kushner (of Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People fame). You can find them in Christian bookstores and in New Age natural-food co-ops.

The message is precious and universal. It can speak volumes to anyone. Therefore, how tragic if we are not ourselves evangelists of this message. How tragic, also, to lose sight of the specific origins of the message which people had to fight and even die for. How tragic, above all, to take in the message superficially and not see the essential radicalism in it that would most assuredly shake people up if only it was spelled out explicitly for them.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Get explicit.

The world is sacred Mystery.
The sources of truth are many.
Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning.

These are three distinctively Unitarian Universalist beliefs, and Robert Fulghum’s faith—which is our faith—trusts in their truth.

Start with the world as sacred Mystery.

Millions of people have believed otherwise. They have affirmed a sharp dualism of sacred vs. profane, filled with God vs. empty of God, inherent worth vs. inherent evil or just inherent nothing.

Emerson spoke of this in his “Divinity School Address” from back in 1838, which Fulghum would have thoroughly absorbed in his studies. Jesus, says Emerson, “spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Emerson here is sharply critical of the conservative Christian view that sees Jesus as uniquely God and the sacred as something strange that has to break into our world from the outside and jar the natural course of events. He is adamant that Jesus’ true teaching about himself was that he was a man God-inspired, as much as any person could be ”as their character ascends.” He was insistent that nature is already full of miracles and we would know that if we could learn how to see. Keep our eyes closed, and what happens instead is a focus on things like virgin births and the parting of the Red Sea and that’s what’s monstrous.

“That is always best which gives me to myself,” Emerson says. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” (A “wen” is a painful cyst on one’s face or scalp.)

Emerson says all this—and he paves the way for Robert Fulghum who says, almost 200 years later, “Be aware of wonder.” “Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.”

“And then remember,” he says, “that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere.”

“Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten.”

Do you see the connection? The biggest word of all is LOOK because the world is sacred Mystery with sacred endless depths and therefore there is something to look at and something to find. You can learn all the essentials in kindergarten because all the essentials are there already; it is as sacred a site as the peak of the highest holy mountain.

On the other hand, if someone says that the world is empty of God and needs to be filled up, then why LOOK? What is there to look at? The last place you’d go looking for wisdom is a kindergarten—far better to go to your chosen guru or chosen set of sacred scriptures which you insist contains all the God power that ever was, ever is, and ever will be. Ugh. This line of belief makes of us all warts and wens.

Miracle becomes monster.

Only certain beliefs keep the monster away and support wonder. Only certain beliefs make it sensible to remember the little seed in the plastic cup, and to say of this miraculous thing, “We are like that.”

Beliefs matter.

Here is the next: The sources of truth are many. This is very different from saying, There is one and only one source, which millions of people say.

But not us. Not Fulghum. And not Emerson. Here’s how Emerson lays it out, and again, we are drawing from his “Divinity School Address,” where he describes the “capital secret” of the minister’s profession: “namely, to convert life into truth.” “The true preacher can be known by this,” says Emerson, “that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”

This is what got pounded into my head in seminary, and the same thing goes for Fulghum; and it is, in fact, something that all of us need to be engaged in, preacher or not. “I’m sorry,” says Fulghum, “but I think we have a lot better, richer lives that we often think we do. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Did you ever notice this?’ and if you did notice this then you wouldn’t feel your life was so poverty stricken.”

We can be just like bad preachers if we don’t LOOK at the experiences coming into our lives and mine them for the truth and wisdom that’s there. All we need is eyes to see and ears to hear.

The true preacher and the true Unitarian Universalist can be known by this, that they pass the raw materials of their lives through the fire of thought.

That’s why, when we read Fulghum, we see him extracting philosophy from such subjects as the shoe repairman who leaves cookies in the shoes he can’t fix, the homely Indian who becomes beautiful when he dances, in the small deaf boy who wants to rake leaves.

That’s why Fulghum sometimes hops into his car, sets the odometer at 100 miles and drives. When it dwindles to zero, he steps out and talks to anyone he encounters. Because he has faith that whatever happens, God is in it and there are depths of meaning to discern and it’s going to be one of countless sources of truth and meaning in his life.

He’s a good preacher. He shows the way to being a good Unitarian Universalist.

The third and final belief we look at today is, Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning. Here again, millions think otherwise. They think God is just waiting for a soul to screw up, so He can throw that soul into Hell. There’s no room for experimentation, there’s no room for trial-and-error, there’s no room for mistakes in a spiritual universe like this, so your salvation is belief in a way of life that has everything figured out ahead of time. Certainty up front.

That’s not us.

We don’t live in that kind of punishing universe.

Listen to Fulghum:

“The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines, when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Just watch.’ Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down beside me, and said, ‘If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish. If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?’ And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, ‘If you do not dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think well of you for trying.’”

The way to richness in life is risky. Sometimes we must disappoint others in order to come alive ourselves; sometimes we must do the thing that scares us to death. We just don’t want to make fools of ourselves. Yet, life leads us to the sort of tango dance Fulghum talks about again and again. Because life wants abundance for us. Life wants to be felt and known fully. Life wants us to LOOK.

This is the world we live in. Not an evil one, but a complex one, a confusing one, one that can hurt us terribly, one that can feel like the depths of winter—but never forget the invincible summer that lies within our hearts. With what we have, we must do the best we can.

Part of the best we can: to stop trying so hard. “Think,” Fulghum says, “of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap.”

Part of the best we can is also about how we treat each other. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush.” “No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I really did. You too.

Do you know the story of how this publishing phenomenon came to be?

Bi-weekly church columns, mostly written between 1960 and 1984. Columns, mimeographed and sent by church members to out-of-town friends and relatives. In 1984, Republican Senator Daniel J. Evans got a hold of a copy and had it read into the Congressional Record. The Kansas City Times printed “Kindergarten” in November 1985. It was picked up by the radio commentator Paul Harvey, the Rev. Robert Schuller, former Representative Barbara Jordan and the singer-activist Pete Seeger. Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest published abridged versions.

Then, one day in 1987, a Connecticut kindergarten teacher tucked “Kindergarten” into the children’s knapsacks to take home. One mother it reached also happened to be a New York literary agent. Patricia Van der Leun tracked down the mysterious minister, who said, “I’ve been writing this stuff for 20 years—how many boxes do you want?”

Van der Leun sold “Kindergarten” to Villard Books for $60,000 and within three weeks it was on The New York Times best-seller list.

But listen to this. “The story of my books is unique,” says Fulghum. “I was sort of shutting down my life. It was like being at a poker game at 11:30 at night and I’m about ready to go home. And all of a sudden I get four aces, and I figure God’s on my side, so I can’t go home. And now it’s about 3:30 in the morning and I’m still at the table, and the cards are still coming up and I’d be a fool not to take this as far as it goes.”

Don’t ever say you have it all figured out. Don’t ever say you’re shutting things down because you’ve seen it all and there’s no more surprises in the world for you.

The world will prove you wrong.

This world is a sacred Mystery.
This world is full of sources of truth.
The spiritual journey goes on and on and never stops.
So LOOK and LOOK and keep on LOOKING.

That’s our sweet UU faith, Robert Fulghum-style, the sweetest-tasting wine.

Why Bother?

We’re talking Easter this morning, and right off the bat I want to say that the essential story is bigger than Christian tradition can contain. The essential story, larger than Christianity and longer-lasting than any religious tradition, is that of the underdog triumphing. It’s crabgrass bursting through concrete. It’s the lily blooming out from a foot of snow. It’s the ugly duckling who turns out beautiful. It’s the little engine that not just could but does.

We already know this story. And it’s so good, every time.

Tell it again and again.

Easter is this essential human story—told in concentrated form.

And perhaps the concentrated nature of it is the reason why it’s an especially challenging variant of the “underdog triumphs” motif. Some stories are fairly mild, like your basic Publix variety green pepper. But then you have stories which scorch like the pepper called Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, one of the hottest peppers on the planet, with a Scoville rating of 1,463,700 SHUs. I’m not even going to explain what an SHU is. I think you get the picture.

The Easter story is like that, for Unitarian Universalists.

It’s why the Rev. Steve Cook says, “It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest.” The Rev. Forrest Church calls it “an awkward holiday.” “UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” says the Rev. Jane Rzepka. And religious educator Michelle Richards titles a recent article, “What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?”

There’s an old joke that says if you drive through town on Easter Sunday you can always tell the UU church apart. All the other churches have signs proclaiming “Hallelujah! Jesus is Risen!” The Unitarian Universalist sign, on the other hand, announces, “Hooray! Flowers are pretty!”

If you are new among us this morning, or new to Unitarian Universalism, I know. It sounds like a whole lot of hand-wringing.

In part, it’s because UUs tend to be overachievers. We tend to be perfectionistic. The Universalist side of us reassures us that God loves us just as we are, warts and all, but the Unitarian side of us has long spoken of “salvation by character” and encourages us to max out our potentials, be all we can be. Shun complacency.

On the Unitarian side of the spiritual family, there are no couch potatoes.

So we can be hard on ourselves. Where this connects with Easter is simply the fact that Easter is challenging for everyone. For everyone, it’s like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. Doesn’t matter what tradition you’re from. Christmas is easy. Everybody loves babies. Everybody loves Christmas gifts and the star of Bethlehem. But Easter? There is no Easter without Good Friday, first of all, and that means crucifixion. There’s nothing cute about crucifixion, just a whole lot of excruciating violence and blood. Then there’s the part of the story when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb where Jesus’ body is supposed to be, but it’s not there, no one knows what’s happened, perhaps some kind of miracle called “resurrection” but no one’s sure, and it is all so terrifying that the women flee from the area because (as the Gospel of Mark says) they are “seized with trembling and bewilderment.” They talk to no one because “they were afraid.”

empty_tomb1

Yay Easter. Gimme some excruciating violence and blood, with a side of trembling and bewilderment and fear. Gimme something called “resurrection” that stretches credulity to the point of breaking.

Wee!

No wonder millions of people have pretty much secularized the holiday, and for them it’s just an occasion to dress up and be a family together at church (but it’s more about FAMILY TOGETHERNESS than church), then, afterwards, a nice meal, then the kids running around the yard hunting for Easter eggs, some of which have been stuffed with chocolate, others stuffed with single dollar bills, and then the prize egg stuffed with a $50 dollar bill, and before you know it, the Easter egg hunt has devolved into the Easter egg melee and then the Easter egg war and this is all miles away from the crucifixion and the women who loved Jesus fleeing the tomb in sheer fright.

Easter is just tough.

But on top of this, yes, there really is additional toughness for Unitarian Universalists. There is rhyme and reason behind all the hand-wringing.

Part of this has to do with our diversity as a religious community. “Our UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” writes the Rev. Jane Rzepka, because of the mutually exclusive desires of the people who come to services. They come, she says, “To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection. To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days. To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition. To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…”

In the quantum world, particles are waves and waves, particles. But worship is not a quantum world. When we have mutually exclusive desires, some are met and some are not met. And then what?

We love our diversity—we believe that there’s nothing else like diverse community to support a search for truth and meaning that is free and creative and open and, ultimately, one characterized by integrity. But, clearly, diversity poses its own challenges.

As for the other reason why Easter is especially tough for Unitarian Universalists. It’s because UUs take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. For us, the resurrection is figurative in significance only. It wasn’t ever a concrete historical happening. It never WAS, but (as a metaphorical reality of the human condition) it always IS. Pain and suffering and evil need never be the last word. Addiction can give rise to sobriety. Bitterness can give rise to blessing. Tragedy can give rise to wisdom. The phoenix will rise from the ashes….

But our specific spin on the resurrection puts us at odds with a great deal of Christian America, which believes that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected. It’s “an awkward holiday,” writes the Rev. Forrest Church, because “the trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not [literally] resurrected. […] So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”

“What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?” says religious educator Michelle Richards because she knows full well that the kids at school are having conversations during recess and the Unitarian Universalist kids are trying to explain their point of view which is way subtler than the conservative black and white views of their friends.

“It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest,” says the Rev. Steve Cook, because, ironically, Easter can cause us to doubt ourselves and our communal wisdom. Taking the Bible seriously and not literally does not lead to the same sort of black and white certainties that our conservative religionists bandy about so obnoxiously—and we can envy their swagger. We can envy their “old time religion.” What is such a strength for us, we can see as a weakness. We are too much in our heads, we say. Too much head, not enough heart.

Oh Easter.

What ARE we doing here? Why bother?

**
**
**

Here’s why Unitarian Universalists should bother with Easter, even though it can taste like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper…

If Easter is special in the way it brings out mutually exclusive desires in people, as the Rev. Jane Rzepka says—and I think she’s exactly right—then Easter invites us to think more carefully about what Unitarian Universalist diversity means and how to manage it well.

Easter comes, and you better believe, we very quickly become aware of a special form of diversity in this place: varying comfort levels with Christianity. Some people are fine with God-talk and fine with the traditional songs and imagery. “In Jesus name we pray,” is not offensive but comforting. And then there are those who are like vegetarians being offered a juicy steak. Traditional songs and imagery that smack of Christianity are jarring and unwelcome—real turn-offs.

Unitarian Universalism is part of the problem here—and it is ALL of the solution.

I say “part of the problem” because Unitarian Universalism is just a little over 50 years old. (Yes, Unitarianism as a separate tradition is positively ancient, and so is Universalism as a separate tradition—but they married in 1961 and the marriage created something completely new. That’s why I’m saying we’re just a little over 50 years old.) And, from the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!

That’s the problem I’m talking about, and it’s a good problem, it’s the problem of growing up and figuring out who we are.

As for Unitarian Universalism being ALL of the solution, what I mean is how our faith calls us to bring compassion to our self-understanding and to the understanding of others. Each of us has a past. Each of us has a story. Our spiritual preferences reflect this. For a long time I could not say the word Jesus without choking, because I was in recovery from being a part of an abusive fundamentalist church growing up. I was allergic to Christianity. Highly. Some of you are right there. Now, when I start to talk about Jesus, pretty soon I’m brought to tears because I love him so. He is beautiful and noble. The allergies have all been worked out. Some of you are right there. And others of you grew up with good experiences, so you’ve never had to heal any allergies. Still others of you are in a different place, and Jesus and God and the Bible are just interesting and you want to know more and all the talk about allergies is actually off-putting for you….

If we can’t bring compassion to this Beloved Community and our shared religious venture, then we are not really Unitarian Universalist at all. Or we’re just bad UUs. As a people of covenant, our diversity works because we make a basic promise to each other: to give up a sense of entitlement, that everything that happens in worship or anywhere else has to satisfy me all the time in all ways. We make a promise to give that up. We also promise to be generous. When we are our best UU selves, and something happens and it’s like we’re vegetarian and someone offers us a steak, of course we don’t eat it, but we also don’t grumble grumble grumble, because we know that someone else in our Beloved Community needs that steak and delights in it. Knowing that is what makes it all OK. That’s what feels good. That’s what Beloved Unitarian Universalist Community is all about.

And so we bother with Easter. We brave Easter even though it brings up mutually exclusive desires. Covenant helps bring us through and take us to something that’s beautiful.

We also bother with Easter even though it puts us at odds with millions of others who read the Bible literally and not figuratively, not as a poetry of the spirit. For them, resurrection is about Jesus literally coming back to life after he was definitively destroyed; resurrection is about this specific miracle. Understandably so, since it was Paul in the Christian scriptures who declared that if this kind of resurrection did not happen, then all of the Christian faith is folly.

But we part ways with Paul. Christianity is not folly, even though Jesus died and stayed dead. That’s what my Unitarian Universalism leads me to, and in fact it tells me that the literalistic conception just confines the resurrection, makes it too small, makes it actually irrelevant to regular human beings here on planet earth who are constantly experiencing tragedy and pain and constantly feeling burned up like the phoenix and we can taste those ashes in our mouth and we cry out to God to be born again and we don’t know how to manufacture that miracle for ourselves, it just has to happen in its own good time…

We need to get the resurrection right. You do know what the symbol of our congregation is? The phoenix. Resurrection is who we are.

Go back to the old story. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last week of his life. His disciples actually thought that he was finally going to take possession of his rightful power as the Messiah. They actually thought he was going to go in like Rambo and crush the Romans and take over. Did you know that? But he didn’t. The most vigorous thing he did was argue with the moneylenders in the Temple and turn a table over. Mostly, what he did was preach love to God and love to man. He sat around praying. That’s pretty much it.

When he was arrested by the Romans (because they too thought he was going to go all Rambo on them), that was the last straw for the disciples. It shattered all their illusions about who he was. In disgust. they started to drift away, one by one. Peter, his closest follower, denied him three times. We all know what the infamous Judas did—but now stay with me. This is Judas ISCARIOT we are talking about, and “Iscariot” comes from he word “sicaroi” which refers to a group of Jewish terrorists who violently resisted Roman rule. In other words, it’s likely that Judas was so frustrated at Jesus’ nonviolence that he turned on him. Love became rage, in the blink of an eye.

Now we’re getting into the heart of the real Easter story, the real story of resurrection. It’s not about what happened to Jesus’ body. It’s about what happened to Peter and the disciples who survived those turbulent days of death, and beyond. It’s about what happened to the women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, were “seized with trembling and bewilderment” and then ran away from the scene, talking to no one, because “they were afraid.”

That’s what I call the phoenix all burned up, all ashes. The underdog who seems like he’s always going to stay under and it’s NEVER going to get better. The ugly duckling that seems he’s always going to be ugly. The little train that seems like he can’t.

But we know what happened. Death did not defeat Love. Death did not conquer it. Death only changed it. That’s the miracle. Jesus’ words and Jesus’ spirit came alive in his followers and they realized that the whole Rambo-obsession was completely misguided, that what this world needs is less Rambo and more Beloved Community. Gandhi realized that too. So did Dr. King. What this world needs is less obsession with impossible miracles and more focus on the sort of miracles that really can happen.

We bother with Easter because we get to say that. Unitarian Universalism gets to say, “The resurrection and the life is not at all supernatural. It’s not about a dead body coming to life. It’s about broken hearts made whole, love transformed into beauty and strength and community. Against all odds, the underdog does triumph. It happened to the followers of Jesus, after everything they endured. And it can happen to us today. Humans are that resilient. Have hope. Keep hope alive.”

We get to say that.

That’s why we bother with Easter.

Hallelujah

Good music liberates.
You feel small, but the music makes you feel big.
You feel all crumpled up, but the music un-crushes you,
it smoothes out all the wrinkles,
it makes you feel fresh and presentable again….

In this reflection I offer a brief personal story
about how music does this for me.
Originally I toyed with the idea of just playing you a song on the guitar,
since the guitar is something I go to
when my heart is tired of being cooped up
and wants to get out there, wants sunlight…

But while playing guitar and the music is doing its liberation thing
and my heart is happy and smiling
and I’m really getting into it
sometimes my fingers forget what they are supposed to be doing.
As in, “Huh, that’s not the right chord…”
I just get carried away….
Which is ok in a much smaller venue than this one….

So rather than play you a song, I’m going to show you
another one of my favorite ways in which music liberates me.
How it takes this body
(which can spend so much time
sitting behind a steering wheel,
sitting at various desks and tables,
standing and doing basically nothing while my mouth gabs away,
walking but it is pure vanilla walking)
and move it towards something completely different….

That was me back in 2012, at the Adult National Figure Skating Championships in Chicago.
It was an interpretive program
to Rufus Wainwright’s version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah,”
which refers to King David in the Bible,
who would dance before God,
he would dance and rejoice,
and there is one story told where someone sees him
and despises him
because the music moved him so…

But David would dance and keep on dancing—
the music moved him to express the hallelujah feeling in his heart
which is a feeling of praise to that which is larger than oneself.
That’s what the word “hallelujah” means….
It’s why we can see music as a First Source of spirituality,
among all the Six we talk about as Unitarian Universalists.
It’s a way in which we can directly encounter God.

And I know in the video I might be looking a bit fatigued
and maybe a tad scared—
you would be too,
skating in front of judges
and it’s just you out there
and you’re in your later 40s
and falling really hurts
and you know
that there’s no box of Wheaties featuring your smiling face
at the end of all this,
you are not Olympics bound,
you are just an adult skater
and the best you can ever do
is just keep on showing up to skating
and keep on doing the best you can do in your fast-aging body….
So yes, I’m tired and it’s scary,
but despite that,
in my heart of hearts is the hallelujah feeling
and it is huge,
it is a positively spiritual feeling that’s flowing,
and the music—the MUSIC—is moving me
beyond merely sitting behind a steering wheel
and beyond sitting at various desks and tables
and beyond standing and doing basically nothing while my mouth gabs away
to something completely different…
It carries me into jumps,
it sends me spinning,
it puts fire in my feet as I do the footwork sequences
and I love it totally,
I feel like I’m truly myself,
I feel free.

From Selma to Now

50 years ago yesterday, a march on behalf of voting rights made national news. ABC interrupted its Sunday night movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” to air 15 minutes of uninterrupted footage of a sort of brutality truly worthy of Nazi Germany. But happening on American soil.

Selma, Alabama.

Nonviolent protestors were attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, to protest all the ways in which Alabama law and practice prevented blacks from voting. They were assaulted with tear gas, billy club beatings, vicious dogs, and attacks from police on horseback.

History knows it as Bloody Sunday.

Selma

The namesake of the bridge is entirely appropriate. Edmund Pettus had been a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Naming the bridge after him was Alabama’s way of affirming their dogged commitment to white supremacy.

How dare the marchers attempt to cross!

But they dared. They dared a second time, and then, with a third march, and surrounded by national guardsmen, military police, and army troops, 8000 people left from Brown Chapel, crossed that bridge, and kept on, and the marchers would eventually swell to 30,000 strong. When finally they reached the state capitol in Montgomery, here’s what those marchers heard Dr. King say:

“The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”

We need to hear these words today, too. On our side of history—from the side of 50 years later, and beyond—we need encouragement to keep going, because he was right, the battle has been in our hands, there has been a call to higher ground, but there were no broad highways leading us easily and inevitably to quick solutions.

From Selma to now, we haven’t seen them…

New York Times writer Charles Blow reminds us that a majority in this country believe that race relations are getting worse and that more than a third think police-minority relations are getting worse. “Obviously,” he says, “in the long sweep of history, no one could make such a claim. Race relations are certainly not worse than they were 50 or 100 or 400 years ago, but there is a nagging frustration that things haven’t progressed as fast as many had hoped.”

Charles Blow adds that, “for young people in their late teens or early 20s … whose first real memory of presidential politics was the election of the first African-American president, any seeming racial retrenchment is jarring, and for them, over the course of their lifetimes, things can feel like they are getting worse. This is their experiential moment,” he says, “that moment when the weight becomes too much, when the abstract becomes real, when expectations of continual, inexorable progress slam into the back of a slow-moving reality, plagued by fits and starts and sometimes prone to occasional regressions.”

That’s Charles Blow. When the abstract becomes real. Slow-moving reality, fits and starts, occasional regressions…

One of these regressions is how access to the vote is currently under the most sustained attack since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was the direct win of the Selma campaign. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the 1965 Act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. States are now requiring stricter voter IDs, cutting early voting, ending same-day registration, and curtailing virtually every reform that made it easier to vote. Minorities are the ones disproportionately impacted.

On the other hand, to what degree are people taking advantage of the vote that Selma won for them? “There was nothing magic about Selma,” says Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest aides. “Selma just gave us the right to vote. But if you don’t vote, and don’t take advantage of that right, you’re still living in a pre-Selma age.”

The road ahead is not altogether smooth.

It’s also a road that takes us from Governor of Alabama George C. Wallace, on Face the Nation,

pulling out one rhetorical trick after another and talking faster than an auctioneer trying to shore up the image of Alabama to a nation and a world that has seen the horror of Bloody Sunday—a road that takes us from this straight to Ferguson and the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County, Robert McCulloch, who, when it was his turn to be on TV, did everything but jumping jacks and jitterbugging to undermine his own side in the trial. “I’m not going to be stampeded and blackjacked in making any accusations against police!” said George C. Wallace, and it was essentially the same thing we got from the establishment in Ferguson, 50 years later.

And then the Federal Government stepped in. Have you read the report?

Here’s a summary from the New York Times:

“The Justice Department on Wednesday called on Ferguson, Mo., to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in so many constitutional violations that they could be corrected only by abandoning its entire approach to policing, retraining its employees and establishing new oversight.”

“In one example after another, the report described a city that used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures, a place where officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause, hurled racial slurs, used stun guns without provocation, and treated anyone as suspicious merely for questioning police tactics.”

The report gave credence to many of the grievances aired last year by African-Americans in angry, sometimes violent protests after the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. Though the Justice Department separately concluded that the officer, Darren Wilson, who is white, violated no federal laws in that shooting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said investigations revealed the root of the rage that brought people into the streets.”

“‘Seen in this context — amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices — it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,’ Mr. Holder said.”

Now, you might have heard President Obama speaking yesterday from Selma, and he directly addressed this report and what it implies about the state of things today.

“Just this week,” he said, “I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. I understand the question, for the report’s narrative was woefully familiar. It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America.”

That’s President Obama. And of course, we don’t want to do a disservice to the cause of justice. To say that bias and discrimination are immutable is to be tone deaf to the music of Selma and all the accomplishments of the past 50 years. But this doesn’t stop how the feeling of being black in America is still a feeling of being unsafe, unprotected, and vulnerable to random violence and hate. Cornel West says it’s equivalent to what Sept. 11th felt like to all of us. That’s Cornel West, not white me. Who knows how many individual criminal justice systems there are in America that are as compromised as Ferguson’s, but they’ve not been exposed yet. Exposed, the Feds would swoop down on them like they did Ferguson, but until that time, what’s going to protect the American citizen?

You never know when the other shoe’s going to drop.

Back on February 16, UUCA and the Georgia Psychological Association co-sponsored a panel discussion on the issue of police-minority relations in this space, and one of the questions was about “what citizens can do to decrease the chances of escalating situations that involve interactions with law enforcement.” As a member of the panel, I got impatient really fast with all the pussyfooting around. Blacks and whites on the panel—police officers, psychologists, civil rights lawyers—but I was just not hearing anyone addressing the reality of being black in our times. So I asked the white folks in the audience of about 100 people if they ever had to coach their kids—especially their white sons—to prepare to be humiliated if police stop them. To lie down, if police tell them to sit down. To walk in the street with only one other boy at a time because, if it’s three or more, police will think you’re a gang. None of the whites in the crowd raised their hands. But most of the blacks did. They bear the burden of decreasing the chances of escalation. They are the ones, always bearing the burden!

The road ahead: not altogether smooth.

Dr. King knew this above all. Days before his assassination, he said to Harry Belafonte, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” Now this is a remarkable question. This is an arresting question. It is but another way of saying that, as central as racism was to Dr. King’s concern, he concern was larger than that. What bothered him was larger than that. You can talk about racism all day but that doesn’t mean you’ve covered all there is to talk about. You can completely solve racism but it doesn’t mean complete success. The house can still be burning—burning in flames of poverty and militarism and materialism.

Who wants to integrate into that?

People got Dr. King’s focus on racial justice, but they didn’t like it when he strayed from that single issue. 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to Vietnam and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. People just didn’t get it. Wanted him to stay single-issue. Didn’t understand his holism, how he saw systems of oppression intersecting and reinforcing each other.

This is exactly why he says, in his eulogy for the martyred Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb, “So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.”

That’s it: the system, the way of life, the philosophy.

Oppressions working together, in concert.

Call the focus on this “intersectionality.”

Dr. King’s intersectionality is something that most people never really got.

The road from Selma to now has not been altogether smooth….

Which is why we do not dare forget what else was said in the shadow of the Montgomery state capitol, 50 years ago: We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.” “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.”

Don’t get turned around. Keep fighting for voting rights. Keep reforming the criminal justice system. Eradicate racism in all its new 21st century obnoxious forms. March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and march on!

Selma" Cast And Director Commemorate The Life Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr - January 18th, 2015 - Selma, AL

But in all of it, keep the provocative question from Dr. King in mind: “Are we integrating into a burning house?”

We need to stand before the forces of power, with intersectional focus. We need to expand our imagination about what the Edmund Pettus Bridge truly symbolizes—how it represents not just racism but poverty and militarism and materialism and other oppressions as well. UUCA’s Amelia Shenstone, in a recent blog, quotes writer Naomi Klein where she says, “…if wealthy white Americans had been the ones left without food and water for days in a giant sports stadium after Hurricane Katrina, even George W. Bush would have gotten serious about climate change.” Do you see that? Race intersecting with class intersecting with the environment?

We have to cross that bridge. The road from Selma takes us right there.

Here’s yet another instance of oppressions intersecting. I’m going to read a series of true quotes from various American court cases, laws, and politicians. Some of them are referring to marriage between races, and others are referring to same-sex marriage. See if you can tell which is which. (This, by the way, comes from writer Andrew Kirell):

“They cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies” not allowing their marriage.

OR

This relationship “is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results … [Their children turn out] generally effeminate … [their relationship is] productive of evil.”

OR

State legislators spoke out against such an “abominable” type of relationship, warning that it will eventually “pollute” America.

OR

“It not only is a complete undermining of … the hope of future generations, but it completely begins to see our society break down … It literally is a threat to the nation’s survival in the long run.”

OR

This type of marriage is “regarded as unnatural and immoral.”

Can you tell which is which? The only one that is actually referring to same-sex marriage is the second from the last. The rest are anti-interracial. But all of them sound alike. All of them come from the same spoiled well of hatred.

How can you fight racism and not fight homophobia?

Even as the country marches towards nationwide marriage equality and polls show record levels of support for same-sex marriage, it’s just like 50 years ago, and George C. Wallace and his thugs want to stop that march. Refuse to let them cross the bridge. Just this past Thursday, the Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is legislation that seeks to secure the right of “persons” (a term not defined and so could therefore be interpreted to include businesses, individuals, and even state employees) to refuse service to LGBT Georgians, or anyone else who supposedly offends someone’s “religious beliefs.” Marriage equality comes to Georgia, in other words, but clerks can refuse marriage licenses on the basis of their “religious convictions.”

Don’t let them cross the bridge.

What drives me to despair is the whole appeal to “religious convictions” which, for the conservative politicians involved, is supposed to somehow relate to Jesus of Nazareth. I just say, read your Bible. Jesus was someone who regularly shared a table with exactly the sort of people that the religious leaders of his day thought were inappropriate and out of bounds and evil—but Jesus thought they were not evil but children of God like everybody else. I want to tell those conservative politicians that they are no followers of Jesus at all. At least not the real Jesus.

But “We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around,” right?

The so-called Religious Freedom Act heads to the Georgia House, so what can we do? I spoke with Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, and here’s what he said. “First: no one should consider this inevitable. The political dynamics of the house are very different than those of the Senate, so people should continue to voice their opposition.” More concretely, he said, “Folks can contact business interests such as AT&T, or the Metro Atlanta and Georgia Chambers of Commerce, and ask them why they are not vocally opposing this bill like they did last year.” You can participate in Georgia Equality’s phone bank and call people to to educate and mobilize people against the proposed legislation. You can stay informed by following Georgia Unites Against Discrimination via twitter, Facebook or email. Finally, Jeff Graham said that if the bill is passed by the House and it goes to the Governor’s desk, that’s when the protests will start. So stay tuned.

The road from Selma to now. There is a sense, 50 years later, that we are still trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. So much has been accomplished, but there is more yet to do. And our imagination about what is ours to do needs to be intersectional like Dr. King’s. No one wants to integrate into a burning house.

I’ll close with a story from just this past Wednesday and our amazing “Remembering Selma” event. It’s the benediction part of the service, and I’m saying those immortal words from Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Standing beside me is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, who I’ve asked to stand with me, together with others, because he was there in Selma 50 years ago, he saw it all, experienced it all, was beaten bloody but refused to stay down, was faithful to the cause of justice. He was there with Dr. King, was instrumental with Dr. King in leading the cause. This great man is standing right beside me, and as I am saying the immortal words, he is whispering them too, but he’s not reading them, his eyes are closed, he’s remembering them and the man who originally said them, perhaps he’s remembering the exact moment when Dr. King first said them, and the words are seared upon his heart, the words are sealed upon his very soul. In that moment I felt as though the love message came straight to me from Dr. King himself, and Dr. Vivian was the link.

From Selma to now, the challenge is, and will always be, bridges of darkness and hate to cross.

From Selma to now, the message is, and will always be, the power of love to overcome.

Lift Every Voice

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered….

It’s February 15, 1965, and the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian and 40 marchers arrive at the Selma courthouse. Sheriff Jim Clark is there, a bulldog, wearing his George Patton-inspired World War II helmet, and he’s not happy. Dr. Vivian walks up the steps, says they’ve come to register to vote, but Clark refuses to let them pass, says the courthouse is closed, forces them to stand in the rain.

CT Vivian

Then Dr. Vivian sings a song, a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. He says, “Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt.” Clark doesn’t want to listen. He turns his back. Dr. Vivian can only sing more of his song full of faith, says, “You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.”

That’s when a crowd of whites start to heckle Vivian and his song. They call him a screwball. That’s what they call this great man.

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.

It’s March 7, 1965, and it’s the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. 600 people are met with beatings and tear gas. Bloody Sunday. It’s captured on film and national networks and now the nation has seen with its own eyes how America is just as bad as a place like Nazi Germany. One of the leaders of the march, John Lewis, says, ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma.’’

Dr. King puts out his call. He wants troops of a different sort to stand up for justice. Clergy of all faiths. Among them, the Unitarian Universalists, who come streaming in by the hundreds. Among them, the Rev. James Reeb.

James Reeb

“Since my days as a Hospital Chaplain” he says, “some of my deepest concerns have related to the problems of Negro people in our society. I would like to have a further opportunity to contribute to the changes that will bring them full equality in American society. But I believe that dream of justice is one of man’s noblest aspiration and one which continues to grow in importance to me.”

But he never made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Yet his sacrifice would be enough, and more than enough. “History,” says Dr. King at the memorial service a few days later, “has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state.”

And it absolutely did.

But how much consolation is there in this, for Mrs. Reeb and her children?

So many people hurt in all this. All the martyrs. All the violence.

God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Stony the road we trod

We know that here, too, in Atlanta. For this story, go back even farther in time, to 1948. A black Unitarian from Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, comes to Atlanta University to become chairman of the Department of Social Work, and he applies for membership in the United Liberal Church, which was the ancestor congregation to UUCA and all our metro Atlanta UU congregations. Dr. Jones applies for membership and is refused. The Board of Trustees turns its back on justice, like Sheriff Jim Clark does to Dr. Vivian in 1965. That Board heckles the idea of integration. Or maybe they are just anxious. They don’t want to rock the boat. Nice people, for reasons of niceness, or simple insecurity, can do awful things…

United Liberal Church

What follows is a death that is nothing at all like the noble death of the Rev. James Reeb. The sequence of events is like dominoes falling. When the minister at the time hears the news, he resigns. The national bodies with which the church is affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklist the congregation and urge that no minister step in to serve while it is segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owns the building and practically everything else because the congregation is a cheap bunch, sells the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.

The United Liberal Church is dead. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
Out from the gloomy past
’Til now we stand at last…
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“Every crisis,” says Dr. King, “has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”

He says, “When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way…”

We feel that power stirring in the story of Dr. Vivian and the Rev. Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and so many others. Power to make a way out of no way. The Kingdom of God may yet reign….

So, one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissions the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and resurrect the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, is to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you read in the congregation’s order of service.

And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.

Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies

All of a sudden, a congregation that never goes above 50 in membership shoots up to more than 100, and beyond. Whitney Young, then Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work (and later national head of the Urban League), is a member of the Board of Trustees. Dr. King, at this time assistant to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, is a pulpit guest, as well as the Rev. Sam Williams. All these amazing things are happening because now the congregation is turning towards justice.

Nothing screwball in that at all…

So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up the Kingdom of God, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, they are a part of that.

There is nothing screwball about turning towards justice.

There is nothing screwball about facing down all the Sheriff Jim Clarks who, across the years, reappear with grim regularity, most recently in the guise of the Staten Island police who had Eric Garner in a choke hold and Eric Garner croaked out “I can’t breathe” eleven times but no one was listening and then he died, another martyr in a long line of martyrs, another family bereft, another sign of the stony road we tread, another sign of the bitter chastening rod.

We are not done yet. And yet,

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Our weary feet have come to the place for which our fathers and mothers sighed, and struggled, and died. Our feet have come to this place. Because of people like Dr. C. T. Vivian and the Rev. James Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and the people of the reborn United Liberal Church who made history here in Atlanta, whose fathers put their bodies on the line to protect the miracle that was happening inside the church—the Kingdom of God being being built through the delight of young people coming to know each other and crossing boundaries of race.

We must keep crossing boundaries.
We must keep on building the Kingdom.
We must ring it with our lives, to protect what’s being built.

Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.

Never stop turning towards justice.
Don’t let the hecklers stop you.
Don’t let the sheriffs stop you.
Don’t let niceness stop you.
Don’t let the fact that sometimes, like James Reeb, we won’t ourselves cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We have to leave that to others.
We must never prejudge what our influence can be.
How dare we stop ourselves before we even begin?
How dare we give up because we can’t jump immediately to full victory?
Bring your gift to the altar anyhow, whatever it is.
Don’t stop.
There is a power to make a way out of no way.
That power is real.
That power stirs in this place right now.
Be a part of it.
Turn towards justice.
Don’t stop.
Never stop.

Liberation from Body Shame

In her poem “homage to my hips,” Lucille Clifton says:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,   
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

That’s the poem. No apologies. No shame. No sense that her hips (or any other body part for that matter) are making her unworthy.

The message rises to theological height. These hips are big hips, these hips need space to move around in, these hips don’t like to be held back: the suggestion is that it does not matter so much what bodies look like or whether they conform to some externally or internally imposed standard but, rather, where does your body take you, what is it showing you in your life, what is it enabling you to put a spell on and spin like a top?

The body is not an end-in-itself but a way to live out a larger purpose.

In this sense, everybody’s hips are big and want to be proudly claimed as big.

I call this “body electric theology” after the famous Walt Whitman line, “I sing the body electric.” Lucille Clifton sings and sings, and maybe we sing too.

Or maybe we don’t.

Listen to Alexandra Marshall, writing for W Magazine in 2012: “When injectables took over the world in the early aughts, having facial wrinkles became more of a choice than an inevitability. But at the same time, armies of women of a certain age started to look like the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and I began to believe that there was something honest and rock ’n’ roll about being able to move my face. I actually like my crow’s-feet, and I can live with the lines between my eyebrows.”

“But—and there is always a but—no one warned me about my neck. As noble as a few frown lines may look in post-Botox America, there is no air of refusenik coolness to a wattle. Every woman I know who has reached her early 40s and woken up with a falling chin or a wavering jawline agrees. (No wonder the late Nora Ephron’s 2006 book I Feel Bad About My Neck was a best-seller.) ‘This neck thing just makes me feel old,’ my friend Gillian, a 43-year-old interior designer in Los Angeles, told me while wrapping her ever present cotton scarf tightly around her throat. I know exactly what she means. I’m 42 and have become conscious of an area that I’ve named ‘the drop zone’: the increasingly declining curve between my neck and jaw, which used to be a taut right angle.”

That’s Alexandra Marshall, and from here the article goes on to consider “what can be done about it,” and of course it does.

Lucille Clifton might be singing the body electric but how do you do that with wattles or turkey neck or whatever the heck it’s called?

Really? A turkey neck is going to enable you to put a spell on someone and spin them like a top? Really?

From here it’s open season on our bodies. Those of you with actual big hips might never have bought into what Lucille Clifton said to begin with. And don’t get me started on what it’s like to be a short guy, or have a big nose. If I get started and if you get started about all the things that bug us about our bodies, well, this is going to be one LONG LOUD communal sermon and everyone’s talking nonstop and it’s just miserable.

Body electric theology can simply fall apart in the fingers of our body anxieties and body shame….

That’s what I want to talk about today—the shame and what anchors it, and then the things we can think and the things we can do to help us rise to Lucille Clifton’s theological delight in her big hips. We want to rise to that height, too.

Because “Your body is a flower that life let bloom.” (Ilchi Lee)

Because “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” (Anthony Bourdain)

Care for the flower life has let bloom. Enjoy the ride.

But easier said than done, because shame poisons the flower and poisons the fun.

Says writer Toni Morrison, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”

But there’s always the THEY that works against this love—that’s the poignancy of this passage from Toni Morrison. Always the THEY.

Today it’s no longer slaveowners and a society that affirms the brutal institution of slavery, but what about the idea within communities of color (especially among Black women) that the closer one’s hair is to European texture (straight and smooth) the “better” it is? THEY is racism, internalized and externalized.

THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is also sexism. The way women’s bodies in particular are monitored and policed for propriety. Two examples come to mind: One is professional model Tess Munster who is 5 feet 5 inches and a size 22. Now the average model is 5 feet 10 inches and a size 4—which is why Tess Munster holds the distinction of being the very first “model of her size” to be signed to an agency. She’s got big hips and she wants everyone to know it and the camera loves her—and for this, she gets hate mail like you can’t believe. Death threats. As body advocate Gabi Gregg says, ”If there is a fat person on television trying super hard to lose weight, crying about how hard life is, and talking about how they eat to cope etc, then everyone is at home crying and cheering them on. Put that same person in a crop top while they smile, and the pitchforks come out.”

16ec48e0255c2cd0fc360b4abde38377

An equally fascinating portrait of sexism comes from Aidan McCormack, a transgender man who has always been very hairy. Mustache hairs sprouting out of his face when he was a 10-year-old girl. Talk about enduring a barrage of constant public comment and ridicule. “Why people find hairy women to be threatening,” he says, “continues to bewilder me, and why people believe they have some ownership or right to comment on the state of a female body bewilders and infuriates me even more.” But all of this became crystal clear for Aidan McCormack when he transitioned from female to male. “Suddenly,” he says, “my body and facial hair was a prized possession. […] I also began noticing that people didn’t comment on my body anymore. I mean, every so often somebody on the street will point out how short I am, but by and large the constant companion of unwanted attention and commentary ceased to exist.”

Body shaming messages

Aiden McCormack goes on to say something that is just as much body electric theology as Lucille Clifton’s poem. He says, “The thing that I’ve come to is that all bodies are strange bodies, all bodies are queer. To be embodied is to be queerly embodied because there’s all sorts of hairs growing, and teeth showing up in brains, and trick knees, and runny noses. There’s asthma and allergies, dwarfism and diabetes. We are all kinds of shapes and sizes and we have all kinds of desires and worries. No one’s bodies fit our expectations. There is something ‘wrong’ with all of our bodies. In fact there’s so much wrong with human bodies that you could say that abnormality is what’s normal, what’s human and, ultimately, what’s powerful and beautiful.”

Yes! All bodies are queer. Your minister is saying that today. We are all queer and we all have big hips,

they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

That sounds like Unitarian Universalism to me, people!

But. THEY won’t have any of that. THEY do not love your flesh.

THEY is business. As Jennifer Weiner, New York Times writer, says in a recent article about a particular body part that is the “new” focus of anxiety but which I cannot, in all good taste, describe to you in church, “Show me a body part, I’ll show you someone who’s making money by telling women that theirs looks wrong and they need to fix it. Tone it, work it out, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, lipo it, remove all the hair, lose every bit of jiggle.”

But business is also becoming wise to the increasing awareness in men that women like to look just as much as men. Women ogle too—at Ryan Gosling’s abs, for example—and men, well, we’re getting the message that we’re not measuring up. Liposuction is one the fastest-growing plastic surgery procedures being performed on men; eating disorders and body dysmorphia are on the rise in guys. So business comes swooping right in…

THEY is racism, THEY is sexism, THEY is business, so many forces of THEY beyond these three. We feel shamed by them, we internalize that shame, and we ourselves become agents of that shame. THEY don’t even have to lift a finger. We can’t help but find something wrong with ourselves. We criticize another’s appearance in front of them. We criticize them behind their backs.

A special case of this is fat shaming, which, really, is one of the few forms of discrimination that people still think is ok. Says my colleague the Rev. Cyndi Landrum, “People shame fat people all the time, and they seem to feel good and virtuous about it. The argument is that ‘Fat is unhealthy. My shaming them will help them to stop this unhealthy behavior.’” And then she says, “Without even addressing the ‘fat is unhealthy’ statement, this is wrong on two other levels: shaming does not help people. And even if shaming someone did change that person’s behavior, that does not justify the shaming. The shaming is still wrong. Your fat jokes are not justified by your ‘concern’ for my health. Period.”

Can I hear an amen?

Literally, shaming does not help. A recent long-term study out of UCLA found that young girls who were called fat by someone close to them were more likely to be obese in later life.

I don’t have time now to address the ‘“fat is unhealthy” issue in any depth, so all I will say is this. If you see a fat person and you think any of the following: “Huh, he must eat fast food all day and never exercise,” OR, “Huh, she must be so unhealthy,” OR, “Huh, that’s a person with absolutely no willpower,” OR, “Huh, no one must bug them about being fat so I need to be the one to fill that void,” OR, “Huh, they must feel bad about themselves and want to be skinny”—if you catch yourself thinking any of these things, stop the thought, don’t indulge it, don’t allow yourself to go down that little rabbit hole. Question it. Challenge it. Go online and google “fat stereotypes” and see how fat is actually a complex issue, there’s way more here than meets the eye.…

weight-stereotyping-main

And already we are on the path towards liberation from body shame. Just breaking the silence is big. Silence solidifies shame, but opening up heals…

I asked a member of this Beloved Community, Melissa Mack, to share her personal thoughts about liberation from body shame, and here is what she said: “Here’s what I most want people to know. For me, liberation from body shame hinges on 2 key points: the airplane metaphor and the idea that it’s a journey, not a destination.”

“So when you get onto an airplane and they’re doing the safety demonstration, they mention the bit about if the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, you have to put yours on first and then assist others. You can’t assist others if you can’t breathe, obviously. I have found that learning to love my body and myself have tremendously increased my capability to love others and to love this world. For me, it’s a way to live our UU principles. Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person includes myself! And if we’re all part of an interconnected web, knowing that I’m a fabulous piece of that web makes the whole web a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”

“That said, it ain’t easy. I still have days where I feel like my body is betraying me. Everyone does, even folks who are 100% liberated from body shame. And when that happens, when we have bad days, that doesn’t mean that we’re slipping or that we have succumbed to the shame. It means we’re human. It happens to everyone, and it’s okay. But it means that loving our bodies is a process that we have to keep working at constantly. And it is work! It is hard, intense, tedious work. But I have found that putting in the work is totally worth the effort. So I keep plugging on, even on days when I wish I didn’t have such a big belly or that my thighs were smaller. Because loving my body makes me a hell of a lot happier than hating my body. I choose to be happy.”

My body—short as it is, with the big nose that comes from my father—is, all things considered, the only true home on this earth I will know. It’s the only place I have to live. Same thing is true about your body, for you.

Whatever it is that might be causing you shame—your queerness, and you feel the constant disapproval of the THEY—it’s your truly big hips, or your too-small hips, or your saggy neck wattles, or you don’t have abs like Ryan Gosling—well, love your home anyway. Love it despite what THEY say. Love it hard. Sing the body electric!

Because our amusement park bodies are just waiting to be enjoyed.

Because life has let the flower of our body bloom.

Choose to be happy.

Gabourey-5