The Crossroads of Covenant

Delivered at University Unitarian Church on Sunday, August 8th, 2021 at 9:30am. Video from the service can be found HERE.

Good morning siblings in faith! It feels good to be back in our sanctuary this morning. This is my first time in our pulpit since my ordination in March. Once again, I want to say “thank you” for your love and support in my work and ministry. It is an honor and privilege to serve University Unitarian Church, our Seattle community, and our larger faith, as a chaplain and spiritual care provider. It is filled with good and holy work. Work that has been difficult, and needed, in the time of pandemic. As chaplains fill an important role in meeting the psychospiritual needs of patients and staff.

We don PPE (personal protective equipment) and go into patient rooms to deliver the rites and rituals of death. We hold iPads up for families to see and maybe speak with their loved ones, since they cannot be at bedside due to quarantine restrictions. We gather clinicians together to hold space and decompress from long and costly shifts. We sit with parents and caregivers, children and friends, in parking lots and waiting rooms, buffering the shock of tragic news. We are not therapists or psychologists; though we are trained in those techniques. We are more like psychospiritual paramedics, stabilizing the mind and spirit in the midst of trauma. Getting human beings through sometimes the most difficult day of their lives.

Over the last 18 months I have seen hospital policies change back and forth, sometimes on the same day, responding to new data coming in from executives and medical professionals. Before the pandemic, the only time we wore masks was when patients had the risk of airborne infection. Now, we all wear them. Patients used to be able to receive visitors at bedside. Now, they must be cleared ahead of time. At their best, the policies and culture of the hospital systems I work in encourage the health and healing of our patients.

Except when they don’t. Because they’re not perfect. In my experience, one of the more difficult and morally injurious tasks I’ve had to do, is tell a spouse, partner, child, friend, that they can not be there when their loved one is dying. Because the risk of exposure is too great. And I’ve been cursed at. Pleaded with. Almost physically assaulted. An experience many clinicians can speak to. We WANT to say yes. And yet, we can’t; except sometimes, for those rare occasions because every case is different, we have broken policy because we could not say no. Like when a 40 year old mother of two sons, 10 and 13, was dying, and we snuck in their partner and children, because we HAD to. We had to weigh the letter of the law against the spirit of the law. We did our due diligence. And we got lucky. The infection didn’t spread.

18 months later, many of us are challenging some of these policies, as new information has come in. We know more about the risks. And I’ve learned that blanket policies without room for exception quickly become harmful, because human life and death is messy and complex. At best, the policies serve as a structure to make the best decisions we can in our mission; to help and heal. At worst, they are wielded like a club to force compliance regardless of the injury, to self and soul.

I’ve noticed that many institutions of human culture function in the same way as the hospital. We have our rules and laws, mores and unspoken expectations about how we will be together. The greatest of which, in my opinion, are the covenants we create which inspire us more fully into our humanity. One of which is our own Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As much as its quoted, this is not a law. This is a faith statement. I don’t think it is an accident that the United States and its Federal Government in many ways functions like a church. The Declaration is also a covenant, for community and accountability. Because we all know the framers could to do better. At the time, many in the colonies did not have a right to life, liberty or happiness. Many were slaves. Many in power were slave owners. Still, they wrote the words and made the promise.

They formed a new nation, not so much in law or treaty, but in covenant. Because the final line in the Declaration is this: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This is not the quid-pro-quo of many legal document. These words carried the weight of human connection; a promise that would be challenged through war and peace. And like many great works of humanity, would chafe and challenge all who encountered it. Because it reached for greater ideals than was reality, and uncovered the shortcomings and hypocrisy of its authors.

The Declaration was not enough. The Articles of Confederation were not enough. Our nation in its diversity and complexity needed something that would hold us together. Therefore the Constitution was drafted. And it too begins with a covenant:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At the time of its ordination, “We the People” excluded many. Slaves. Servants. Women. Indigenous peoples. “Justice” excluded many of the same. “Tranquility” perhaps for the powerful. “Common Defense” which would seek to strip the land and culture from those who were here before “the white man came.” “Welfare” for who? Did those Blessings of Liberty trickle down like voodoo economics? No, they did not.

          Yet, our nation’s Constitution, like the Declaration and other similar documents; the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path, the Beatitudes, the Five Pillars; became more than what was just written. A living document with words that would always break out of the containers in which they were placed. “We the People”, “Order”, “Union”, “Justice”, “Tranquility”, “Welfare”, “Liberty”, “Posterity”. These are transcendental subjects of human being that cannot be controlled or held by a minority of interpreters. They are not signs; they are symbols, for what could be.

          Signs are static. “Stop” with its red octagon and bold white letters, is not a suggestion. And while I have been known to perpetrate a “California Stop,” slowing down and making sure no police are looking on, its command is clear. For a good reason. In the Emergency Department at Harborview Medical Center, I have first hand knowledge of the danger in not following signs. “Yield”, “Warning”, “Do Not Enter”, “Wrong Way”, “No Left Turn”, our world is full of signs helping with navigation and structure; law and regulation. There is no room for interpretation; there is room for challenge. “Whites Only” is a sign which was challenged by the symbols contained in our Constitution.

          A symbol, theologically, is an object which directs the human gaze to something greater than its reality. Its meaning can be debated, contested. It can not be pinned down or captured through a sole interpretation. This, is a symbol: our flaming chalice. It was created for a particular moment in time, to help provide documentation for those fleeing Nazi persecution. However, it has become more than a passport stamp. It is the light of faith. The flame of wisdom. The fire of commitment. The container of spirit. It transcends the static. This, too, is a symbol: (hold fist in the air), which would overcome the limits of the signs of the time.

          Our Declaration and our Constitution are symbols which transcend their original meaning and intentions. Their words can be challenged and new ways interpreted. And when the old words are not enough, new words can be added with the consent of governed. Slavery can be abolished. People of color and women can have suffrage. Prohibitions against discrimination can be enacted. One of the reasons we say our Constitution is a living document, is because it can grow and change along with its society and culture. Symbols never expire their capacity of interpretation; will always overflow the narrow containers of belief.

          Our own Unitarian Universalist faith follows the covenantal tradition, replacing doctrine and dogma with seven principles and six sources which help guide us in our relationship with each other and the world. And like most living documents, as symbols of faith, our principles were not perfect nor enough when they were first drafted. Here is there original wording as adopted in 1961:

In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;

2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;

3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;

4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;

5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;

6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

How much has changed in our faith, and in our world, from 1961 to 2021? Movements from within our faith, led by women and other groups, sought greater inclusion and openness. “Man” was made gender neutral. Indigenous and Earth centered traditions were included. Revised in 1985 and amended in 1995, adding a principal: “covenanting to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Brings us to its current form. Fifty years have passed since the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists. Both Christian denominations that have since gone beyond their original creeds to form a more perfect union of pluralistic faith. We are truly come a long way in a short time.

Once again, our denomination is considering adding to our principles because for many, the demands of the world rub up against our covenant and lay bare imperfections and shortcomings. An 8th principle has emerged to meet these challenges, covenanting to affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

          Like in the past, we struggle as a community and as a faith on why and how to do this. There was tremendous pushback in 1980 when women fought to be included as equals in the wording of our faith. It took five years and numerous meetings and conversations to remove the word “Man”, “men” and “brotherhood” as a placeholder for all human beings. Therefore it does not surprise me that we are having difficult and turbulent conversations around adopting the 8th principle. My hope and prayer is that our current principles and sources can hold us in tension and relationship through the process.

           As I reflect on the 8th principle and the events preceding its creation, I see it as a natural evolution of our liberal living faith. Like other living traditions, the crises of the moment have caused our symbols to transcend their old meanings and take on new interpretations. Because the old meanings were not getting the job done; they had become signs to point at, rather than symbols pointing to. And when religion becomes about signs, it loses its connection to the human spirit; to the source of Life and Love which calls us to transcendence. It becomes like a red octagon with white letters: “STOP!” It becomes literal. Fundamentalist. A rule to follow rather than a road to freedom.

I wonder how our own principles have become like stop signs? Stifling creativity. Are they still opening us to something new in the world? To me, our principles call me to reflect on how I may be a better partner and lover, sibling and parent, colleague and friend, minister and chaplain. When I hear the proposed 8th principle, I feel a fire inside of me, challenging me to dig deeper into my spirit and show up with powerful love in a new way. At the end of the day, I feel accountable to myself in how I have loved, working through the oppressions in myself and my institution.

In this pandemic, I have been called to minister to all people; including the angry white conservative Christian with the MAGA hat. The neo-Nazi with white nationalist tattoos up and down their chest and arms. The gun lover. The border wall builder. The racist. The homophobe. The COVID denier. And what helps me through those moments comes out of our principles. And through them, I build relationship as I’m able. To the point where a dying man with a very different ideology from myself trusts me enough to ask: “Will you stay and pray with me?” And I can reply, “We are in this together.” And we move on into that “field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing, where ideas, language, even the phrase each-other don’t make any sense.” (Rumi)

Siblings in faith, at this time and place, we are being asked to consider how we may better live into our Unitarian Universalist values. Because our seven principles have not been enough to bend the arc of justice to the point where all people of good-will are welcome and included in our congregations, communities and world. Events have exposed spiritual and moral cracks in our personal and institutional foundations. We are called to respond.

Like with many covenants I’ve known in the past, I am being asked to consider something new. My hospital needed new policies to respond to COVID. Our Declaration needed a Constitution to respond to the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Our Constitution needed further amendments to respond to abolition and suffrage. And our Unitarian Universalist principles are now tasked to respond to the challenges of climate crisis, prejudice, and systemic oppression. All of which are linked through intersectionality. To deal with one means to deal with them all.

And I believe the 8th principle makes explicit what the first seven principles say implicitly about our covenant with each other and the world. That we are interwoven in a garment of human destiny. (King) That what affects one directly affects all indirectly. That we cannot do this alone. That we need one another. We remember that our principles and sources are not signs; they are transcendental symbols that overflow with meaning and love into the world. Pointing the way to beloved community. And when the powers and principalities of the world hold up their sign saying “STOP!” we answer with a symbol of our own. (Our Flaming Chalice)

May our conversations and confrontations around the 8th principle be fruitful and lead to a deepening of relationship and understanding of each other. May our symbols lead us to deeper humanity and connection with the source of Life and Love. And may we remember that every day is a new gift to love and serve. May it be so. Amen.

Rest as Revolution

Originally delivered to Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on 7/11/2021 as part of their online worship service.

Good morning siblings in faith! Thank you for inviting me back to Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I wish I could be with you in person, and I imagine (and pray) that this will be possible soon. As we enter into the middle of July, I can’t help but feel a sense of grief that summertime, a beautiful and all too short gift in the Northwest, is half way over. So from May until now, I hope you’ve taken some time for yourselves to enjoy the sun and water, mountains and forests.

I do have a confession. Unfortunately, I have not taken the time. And for all the right reasons. My chaplain work at the Veterans Administration and Harborview Medical Center come with long hours. I try to give my six-year-old child, spouse, and mother as much time and love as I can. Completing my ministerial formation with its graduate degree, study for committees and ordination needed attention. Then there’s board certification. And looking for employment after my fellowship ends. During a pandemic that has limited options for school and childcare, travel and recreation. If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to create more hours in a day.

For some of you; or perhaps many, this sounds familiar. Not excuses really; more like reasons. Life is full; and in many ways full of blessings. Still, I wonder if there is another way? Perhaps I will rest when I finish all the things. That is what our culture promises, right? That if I work hard and do all the right things, I will reap the rewards of retirement and leisure.

The problem with this, however, is that it isn’t true. Over my almost five years in hospital ministry has taught me something about human behavior and life. First, a universal truth: we are not promised a single day of life. Second, the regrets of the dying: “I wish I had more time.” “I should have taken time to be with my children.” “I could have spent more time with my spouse.” “I wish I had gone on that trip while I had the chance.” “I should have done more for myself.” The lesson is if I do not rest now, the only rest I may have will come after I am dead.

At that point, at least in my theology, its not going to be worth it. Our faith is rooted in the here and now; and I want to rest, in the here and now. Rest is a natural part of life on our planet. The cyclical changes of seasons, with the dormant winter giving birth to an apex of activity in the summer. Most of the animals in the world need periods of rest and sleep. Even in the Hebrew scriptures, God takes a break after creating the universe. And even Jesus of Nazareth needed to take a break once in a while. In the Gospel of Luke, after the miracle of the loaves and fish (which is actually more about economies of abundance than it is about miracles), Jesus took off on a boat to get some alone time.

The human need to rest and rejuvenate is not just a privilege; it is a right of all living creatures. And yet, I find myself feeling guilt and shame when I have an idle moment. Which is neither healthy nor spiritually enlightened. And flowing from, and perhaps rooted in, this rejection of rest is another common phrase I hear from my patients: “What good am I if I can’t do anything?” Which usually comes after a diagnosis of cancer, or COPD, or an amputation of a leg or arm. Whatever the illness, it comes with a drastic decrease in the ability of the patient to work. To be productive. To do “the thing.” In so many of my conversations, I have been able to see myself saying the same thing. “What good am I if I cannot do?” As if, instead of a human being, I am a human “doing.” It doesn’t help that our culture places “doing” as an exemplar of righteousness.

I believe our addiction to doing is a systemically learned behavioral trait stemming from our Puritan and Pilgrim roots and through the lies of capitalism which says: “Laziness is evil.” “God helps those who help themselves.” And “Wealth equals moral goodness.” All of which are unspoken truths of our culture. None of which appear in any of the religious and spiritual scriptures I’ve studied; which place human flourishing and wellbeing as a goal of work, not as an afterthought. Therefore, I propose our Unitarian Universalist principles can help guide us in spiritual revolution against the tyranny of doing over being.

Our first principle, where we covenant to “uphold the dignity and worth of every person”, extends to ourselves as well. And I have found that my addiction to “doing” denies my own dignity and worth. Because it puts my physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing at risk. Numerous medical studies have shown that increased cortisol levels from stress and lack of sleep impairs my body’s immune system and makes me more prone to illness; whether it’s a flu virus, heart disease, or strokes.  Cognitively, lack of rest comes with reduced memory, decision-making, reasoning and problem-solving. There is a decrease in sex drive and the ability for sensual intimacy with partners. Weight gain. Diabetes. I am even more accident prone, making me up to three times more likely to be involved in a car crash. Rejecting rest is risky.

There is another part of our first principle in play. My ability to extend dignity and worth to others. Many patients have confessed being “difficult” to their nurses, doctors and caregivers. One person in particular, a patient with chronic pain and terminal cancer, told me: “I feel bad for being such an asshole. Its like I’m not myself. And yet the nurses, you, keep coming back and caring for me. I don’t get it?” I reflected on his words, and replied, “You know, when I’m in pain and sick, I’m not always my best self either.” He replied, “You know, I’ve never thought about that. My pain does make it hard. I’m so focused on myself I forget to think about others.”

My addiction to “doing” comes at the cost of my relationships. As I burn out, I have a reduced capacity to consider the worth and dignity of others. Which makes rest a necessary spiritual practice of our faith. As I learn to uphold my own worth and dignity, I become better able to extend this to others. My partner. My child. My co-worker. My racist uncle with the MAGA hat. The principles of our faith do not discriminate. If all are truly welcome at the table of life and love; I must be committed to being a steward able to do the hard work of community. Which requires me to show up in abundance; with joy; creativity; love! Rest is revolutionary!

Our second principle focuses on justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In which rest is needed to fight against the exploitation and abuse of human beings and of the Earth. It is no secret that poverty has increased in the United States as the gap between rich and poor expands; with a living wage far from achievable for many families, especially for people of color. To live in Seattle, according to research by University of Washington in 2020, a single adult with an infant needs to earn $34 an hour to make ends meet. Which is twice the minimum wage. This is reflected across the country, with many people working two or three jobs just to live, never mind flourish. We have made rest a luxury only available to the rich! This is anathema to our beliefs; being neither just, equitable, or compassionate.

            When I subject myself to these conditions, and normalize them, I buy into the myth that “doing” equals love; relationship; goodness. A myth cultivated through generations in my own family. My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated up from Mexico. They were told that they only way to succeed would be to work hard and become “American.” And they did; even though my father’s family lived in poverty for decades, with the children going off to work at early ages to help support the family. My father learned to equate “love” for family with “work.” And so I inherited this narrative.

Growing up I believed that what proved my “goodness” was in what I could “do.” As if I could ever do enough to earn love from my family, friends, partner and child? What I learned later, through therapy and discernment, was that my ability to be available and vulnerable with my loved ones are the real avenues to love. Which begins with finding what balance in my life looks like; through the lens of justice, equity and compassion. Is it just to spend more time at work than with my partner? It is compassionate to my child to leave the house before he wakes up and come home after he goes to bed? No, I do not believe it is.

I believe goodness and love flow from my relationship with, not doing for, the people in my life. The same is true for our church. If we as a religious people are going to challenge the systemic evils of our time and place, like poverty and human exploitation, we have to begin with how they have infiltrated our selves. Which means it is just, equitable, and compassionate to allow myself the luxury of rest. Making sure that I have the energy and capacity to then make sure rest is available to others.

Our 3rd, 4th and 5th principles focus on our capacity to grow our spirituality through mutual support as we search freely and responsibly for truth and meaning. Many, if not all, spiritual traditions teach a need for meditation, contemplation, and retreat to enrich our human being in the world. And rest is a particularly difficult part of this process. Because at least in the United States, we equate rest with laziness, and laziness with moral failure.

Which is a false equivalence. The definition of rest is to “cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover strength.” The definition of lazy is “unwillingness to work or use energy; showing a lack of effort or care.” The first is necessary for rejuvenation. The latter is an orientation of apathy. And a strange association happens between the two. Because without a period of “rest” to recover my mental, spiritual and physical strength, I will become most definitely unwilling or unable to work or use energy, and cease caring.

This ceasing of care; my capacity to be concerned about the welfare of myself and others; is a symptom of burnout. And leads to spiritual death. With patients who have ceased to care about themselves and others, there is a palpable void of pain and despair. They become nihilistic, saying “nothing matters” and push away any connection which would cost the energy of caring. Their deaths, in my opinion, are tragic; lonely, isolated, and angry.

No, this is not who I want to be at any point of my life or death. I am called as a Unitarian Universalist to care for this world with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. And if rest is a spiritual practice that helps inoculate me from despair, then I am morally and ethically obligated to do it, in abundance and with joy!

Our final principles, our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and our respect for the interdependent web of all existence remind me that rest is not only a necessity for my own wellbeing, it has a direct effect on how I show up in the world. Earlier I mentioned how, when I am in dis-ease, I find it difficult to be my best self. The repercussions of this are not just in my own grumpiness; anger; or sensitivity. What affects me will in turn affect others.

There is a quote from priest and mystic Richard Rohr that I have found to be humanly true. “Brokenness untransformed will become brokenness transmitted.” In nature it is the law of cause and effect. In human development, it is the cycle of violence. In health, it is the vector of contagion. Disease spreads. Meaning, if I do not mind my own health, in which rest is a critical component, then I will spread my injury out into the world. Whether it is having a shorter temper, a weakened immune system, or a lack of compassion.

To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, we are woven into a single garment of destiny; what affects one directly will affect all indirectly. I am certainly my brother’s keeper, in the way that I am my own keeper. My attention to a spiritual practice of rest is one way to resist a culture of dehumanization that relies on overwork, overperformance, and excess. Which strips being human of its meaning, and the very Earth of her bounty, as I turn toward consumption to mend a spiritual wound that can only be healed through human connection. Which is incredibly hard when I am not even connected to myself anymore. Much less someone else.

So, siblings in faith, how do we cultivate a spiritual practice of rest? Especially when it seems like our lives would fall apart if we ceased to overperform. I have found, like with many spiritual practices, it helps to begin small. While listening to On Being with Krista Tippet as she interviewed the French born Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard, known medically as the “happiest man in the world” through scans of his brain, he said:

“We do exercise every morning, 20 minutes, to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we were to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. … I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now a few years ago, he started again. He said, “When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath.” Now last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualized it. So is the same potential we have for mind training, but if we don’t do anything, it’s not going to happen because we wish so.”

In this vein, our spiritual practice of rest, begins with a choice. I will REST! Five minutes for breathing after my lunch hour. Leaving work on time one day a week. Scheduling 10 minutes, no, thirty minutes a week for something joyful; even putting it on the calendar. Eventually rest may turn into a commitment of “sabbath” which in the Jewish tradition is a holy time set aside for rest and rejuvenation. I have many colleagues who put on their email signatures, “Monday is my Sabbath. Please do not expect any emails during this time” and who turn off their devices for hours, if not for the whole day.

I have already begun to do this; slowly changing my relationship to work and doing. Exploring what it means to just, “be.” Trying to let go of my conditioned behaviors of shame. Laughing at myself; learning how to play again. How to enjoy the soft breeze off the sound. To realize myself as worth of health, and wellbeing. Remembering how to be human, once again.

Siblings in faith, however you begin to explore rest and make it real in your life, recognize that it is rooted in our Unitarian Universalist identity. Use our principles as guides. Our sources for inspiration. And find pleasure in realizing that, at least in our country and our culture, rest is an act of rebellion against the systems we are working to dismantle: bigotry and discrimination, poverty and dehumanization. Rest is crucial in empowering us to show up as a religious people. It is essential to being a people with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve. And so, I invite you into a holy revolution of rest, with its radical notions of human “being” and counter-cultural ideas of happiness, flourishing and joy.

May the rest of your summer, and the rest of our lives, be filled with time to be our best selves. For ourselves. Each other. Our world. And the Earth. May it be so. Amen.

The Holy Work of Independence

Originally delivered to Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church on 7/4/2021 as part of the 4th of July Independence Day HolidayYou can watch the service on the BBUUC YouTube page HERE.

Good morning, siblings in faith! Thank you for welcoming me to celebrate life and love with all of you at Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church! I pray that your 4th of July weekend is well, with opportunities for joy, community, and commemoration. I was born in the bicentennial year of 1976, when the United States celebrated 200 years of independence. Growing up in the southwest, it was all fireworks and barbeques, live music and the Star Spangled banner. The TV would broadcast specials about how a colonial people rose up against the British Empire to forge their own path in history.  And isn’t this what we do for all celebrations? Gather together, celebrate another rotation around the sun and share memorable stories over and over again?

And yet, the 4th of July was ever really a graduation announcement. It was when the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. Our revolutionary war started the year before. Our name, as the United States of America, would not be officially adopted by the Continental Congress until September 9th, 1776. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t end until 1783. And all thirteen of the original states would not ratify our Constitution until 1790. Fourteen years from the announcement to the emergence of a unified nation. And yet, the 4th of July is the commemoration of a beginning; a desire for something new. Filled with the premise and the promise of what could be.

I remember when my own son was born. There were so many unknowns. Who would he be? What color of hair or eyes? His personality? Even now, six years later, every day is different. And unexpected. We will see, life and love willing, if our own hopes and dreams become reality (much like in the preamble and opening lines of our Declaration of Independence – wanting life, liberty, and happiness for my child) as he moves closer to his own independence.

It seems to me that human beings have evolved a need, in our capacity for meaning making, to differentiate ourselves from our beginnings. Seeking to find our own uniqueness, and legacy. And if the old adage from Rev. Theodore Parker rings true, this need is part of that arc of history ever bending toward justice. Which is the holy work I want to speak about today.

Originally out Gaelic, into the Old High Germanic hulis and Old English holegn, the words meant “Holly” as in the holly tree, which is considered a sacred plant for European indigenous traditions, particularly Celtic and Roman religions. There is a reason in December that we “deck the halls with boughs of holly!” That is the creating of sacred space.

Eventually the word evolved into the Old English word halig, meaning “health, happiness, and wholeness” and its association with spiritual and religious traditions, became our own word “holy.” In the context of our work of independence, rooted in Unitarian Universalist principles, I want to call back to the roots of the word “holy” to focus on the spiritual and religious emphasis on health, happiness, and wholeness.

In the case of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, we the people have many times fallen far from its premise and promise of the truths that were supposed to have been so very self-evident: that all human beings are created equal, and therefore endowed with rights of life, liberty and happiness. Two-hundred and forty-five years since this declaration, through holding onto that arc of the moral universe, we have wrestled and reckoned with the failure through the movements of citizens unwilling to let go of their self-evident rights. Abolition. Suffrage. Labor Unions. Civil Rights. Pride. Black Lives Matter!

Whenever we have strayed from our declared values, holy people have called us back into covenant; closer to health, happiness, and wholeness. Because the Declaration of Independence is not just a legal document. It is a covenant. At the very end, after intent, beliefs, and grievances have been stated, there are the words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

This sounds familiar to me. In our Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws. Article II. Section C-2.1. Lines 39-42: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.” These are the words which follow our own declaration of principles and sources. And like our United States’ covenant, there are times in which we as individuals and as a whole do not live into the premise and promise of our faith. We are called back into holiness: health, happiness, wholeness.

So if our principles are viewed through the lens of holy independence, from who or what are we separating from to return to covenant? Perhaps they are the shackles and chains of pain. Hatred. Abuse. Violence. Fear.

Working in hospital systems has taught me something about our condition of being human. Sitting with a veteran who had just completed a final round of chemo leading to an extended hospitalization, they looked at me and said, “I feel bad. I haven’t been the best patient. Hell, I’ve been an asshole. And yet you still care for me. I’m sorry I’ve been so angry.” Reflecting on his confession, I replied: “Thank you. I know that when I’m in pain, it’s really hard to be my best self too. Maybe when your nurses come in, you can tell them what you told me. And then work on not being an asshole. I’ll help with that, if you’re up for it.” I’ve learned this being human isn’t about being perfect. It’s about not giving up.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Not every good person. Or beautiful person. Or rich person. Every. Person. Yet, I know that when I encounter a patient with white supremacist tattoos up their arm, I feel my anger and fear and disgust. And that little piece of my brain at the base of my skull gets activated and in that moment, I can feel those emotional chains around my heart tighten. Binding me. Trying to prevent me from accessing my prefrontal cortex where I may be able, in a moment, to consider if what I am doing is living into my own principles.

It is in this moment that I seek independence; from the tyranny of my reactive behaviour that can prevent me from living my ministry. And siding with love. Which means taking a deep breath. Saying a quiet prayer for strength. And sitting with that Nazi patient who has asked for a chaplain and providing them with spiritual care. Because underneath the pain, hate, ink and scars there is a human being with inherent worth and dignity who is asking for help. And who knows… perhaps even redemption?

Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his work Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He found in the camps, as he lost his father, mother, brother and spouse to illness, starvation, and gas chambers, that some prisoners could hold onto their humanity while others would sink into despair. He wondered what was at the core of the ability to retain one’s humanity in the midst of horror. He found that it was freedom—holy independence that his oppressors could not take away.

Which is different from the radical individualism that has emerged from the words: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that has somehow forgotten the conclusion about being bound together in life, fortune and honor. Holy independence, or an independence that promotes spiritual health, happiness, and wholeness, does its best to live well in the dynamic tension between the individual and the interconnected. Because I also believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Which challenges the tyranny of selfishness and narcissism that can well up from psychic and spiritual wounds that whisper: “You are not enough.” “You don’t have enough.” “There isn’t enough!” I seek independence from these chains of scarcity! Because the self-evident truth is that all around me is an abundance of life and love, and if there isn’t an abundance of life and love my religion calls me into action to create health, happiness, and wholeness. Which does not happen in a vacuum. My own holy independence is rooted in yours. And yours in mine.

Which is why I believe in the acceptance of one another and the encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregation. Why I believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Why I believe in the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large. Because as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Holy independence is not my independence from you or from others. It is in my realization that across from “I” there is a “Thou.” Philosopher and existentialist Martin Buber wrote, “Humanity wishes to be confirmed in their being by humanity, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other… Secretly and bashfully they watch for a YES which allows them TO BE, and which can come to them only from one human person to another.” This is why independence is so important. Not because it allows me to pull up my bootstraps and shake my fist at the universe. It cultivates my capacity to be my best “me” so that I can be the encourager and witness for you being your healthy, happy, whole “you.”

            Out of this comes my belief in the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and in respecting the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Our faith aims to free us from the shackles of in-group and out-group division which has become the cultural norm. Progressives vs Conservatives. Democrats vs Republicans. Liberalism vs Postmodernism. None of these are “good vs evil”, as I have sat with moral and ethical human beings from all of these labels. And I have been on the receiving end of rage and abuse from the Fundamentalist Christian as well as from the Unitarian Universalist. And there have been many moments where I have failed myself and our faith. Yet, the covenant remains. Because I believe holy independence is not about “being right”; it is in “getting it right.”

            Perhaps the best example for me of holy independence can be found in the Christian writings with the story of the “Good Samaritan” found in the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37:

Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

They lawyer said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

On the surface this seems like a basic story of helping those in need. However, in the context of first century Judea, an important detail needs be known. For that time and place, Jews and Samaritans deeply hated one another; culturally, religiously. It was common for them to kill one another. And yet, this Jesus of Nazareth places before this lawyer an almost impossible task. To love his enemy. The way I interpret this parable, is that in order to live fully into the premise and promise of being human, I must not only love life with all my heart, strength, soul and mind; I must also love the person I want to hate the most.

            Which is at the core of true holy independence and the mission and vision of our covenanted principles. Siblings in faith, ours is not an easy religion. In many ways, it is the work of a lifetime. It is, also, a faith that encourages us into a life of mutual formation, cultivating our capacity to be deeply human, ever becoming a more beloved community. For us, there is no damnation other than the chains we allow ourselves to carry. And every time we gather together, the keys of freedom are waiting in the space between us.

On this Fourth of July, let us celebrate not only the premise and promise written into our national covenant, let us also celebrate holy independence from the tyranny of bigotry, hate, discrimination and despair. Not a celebration of completion or reward. We celebrate for a renewal of covenant and commitment. A celebration of our holy work. Let us be a holy people; a healthy, happy and whole people, through minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve. Today, let us truly mark, our Independence Day!

            May it be so. Amen.

Gratitude as Joyful Resistance

Originally delivered to Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church on 11/29/2020 as part of the Thanksgiving weekendYou can watch the service on the EUUC Facebook page HERE.

Good morning Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. I appreciate being with you all on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Our national holiday set aside to give thanks for the blessings of harvest and relationship. So important now as the themes of life and bounty take on a much more intimate importance. My hope is that you are all safe, and well, and are held in love. And that your celebrations and thanks giving were talismans warding off worry and despair.

Speaking of talismans, I’ve noticed something new in my neighborhood. Having lived in Seattle for almost ten years, I’ve never seen so many lights up on houses so early. There seems to be a deep yearning for the holiday spirit. A return to old traditions that remind us of better times; more simple times. Aside from nostalgia and mistletoe, I know we can offer more. I want to invite us all into a holiday season of gratitude as joyful resistance against a news cycle and ongoing quarantine of worry and despair.

A good way to begin this spiritual practice is by recognizing today as the first Sunday of Advent. The word Advent emerging from the Latin ad venire, meaning “to come; arrival.” The tradition began in the first centuries of Christianity as a time of fasting and preparation for the Christ-mass. We Unitarian Universalist set aside this first Sunday to remember the necessity of hope. Which according to Merriam-Webster, means “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to happen or be true.” We hope for an arrival of vaccination. A new administration. We hope for the arrival of an ending of this time and the beginning of a better tomorrow.

An important component for our practice in gratitude is hope. I’ve learned hope is necessary for resilience. It is what led Viktor Frankl on his search for meaning after experiencing the concentration camps of World War II. He found hope in those places which for many would seem impossible. Yet Frankl witnessed that those who resisted despair seemed to have an internal fortitude. An ember of hope to curl around that no Nazi could touch. He writes in his seminal work: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

As a chaplain I witness this human capacity almost daily. A quadruple amputee who holds the hope of playing with his grandchildren while struggling to learn how to use his prosthetics. A veteran with a long history of addiction and mental illness hoping that this time, the medications will help with the demons of war. A COVID patient struggling to breathe, hoping that their body can keep going for just one more day. A common thread for each was a shift from the despair of an outward locus of control toward a spark of hope in their human spirit.

Yes, each of them experienced pain and suffering. And still, they hoped. Many asked, “Why is God doing this to me?” To which I don’t have an answer. I do not believe in a transcendent being as source of malevolent punishment. Often I will reply, “I wonder if God isn’t doing this; perhaps God is with you in it as a source of hope?” Some patients will then throw me out of the room, because my statement seems to diminish God’s omnipotence. However, more often than not, they will stop and grow silent. A particular patient said, “You know, that young physical therapist really inspired me today. Showed me a new way to use these legs. I stood up. I can’t tell you the last time I stood up on my own. Maybe that’s where God was today.”

Hope seems to come from an inner source. And yet it becomes stronger when it resonates with the hope from another; a friend, a lover, a colleague, or in this time a video of Italians singing from their balconies. Human words and actions often invite a different way of being in the world. And something in me responds in gratitude. Two years ago, this last Friday, my father passed away suddenly. Which shifted my whole experience of this season; pushing me further into Frankl’s words: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This year, amid all that 2020 has offered, my mother and I along with my partner and child gathered in our little pod to make five dozen tamales, as a picture of my father looked on in supervision. There was grief and gratitude. I can not change the reality that my father is dead. I can honor my grief with gratitude.

Which does not mean ignoring or diminishing the reality of psychospiritual pain. Modern neuroscience is beginning to show the toxicity of the “suck it up” model. We have a right, and even a need, to our grief and sorrow and anger. We have all lost something this year; maybe more than in years past. We have had to say goodbye to loved ones. Abandon our places of worship. Give up on support groups. Teach our children through screen time. Live in isolation. And this is in addition to the normal wear and tear of everyday life. My grief and pain are real. Your grief and pain are real. Our grief and pain are real. And we are more than our grief and pain; we are also people of joy, thanksgiving, gratitude and hope.

We have this amazing human capacity to feel complex emotions. This last Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, I accompanied a family in saying goodbye to their 41 year old mother and partner. As her 9 year old held her tight and sobbed, saying, “Thank you for being my mom. I love you.” Her 13 year old held her hand until her final breath. Her partner and spouse holding them both. And each of them said, “thank you” to her. Thank you for fighting as long as she could. For years of memories, road trips and karaoke and game nights and hard lessons. She was able to say “thank you” in return. She died with Bob Marley playing in the background, all of us singing, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause’ every little thing is gonna be all right.” It was one of the patient’s favorite songs.

If someone were to ask me where was God in that unfair and unjust moment, I would say, “God was in the nurses making sure their patient had dignity. In the doctors who helped extend her life, giving her family a little more time. In the love and grief of children being able to say goodbye. God was in the bonds of relationship of an entire community who struggled and fought for a human life.” This family was my teacher for this Thanksgiving. A reminder of what Frankl saw. Not only did we cry. We also laughed – hard, abdominal muscles burning laughs as I invited them into stories of good and joyful moments. In the end, pulling into my driveway at just after 11pm, I felt held in grief AND gratitude.

Emily Dickenson wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Entering into this holiday season with a theme of “hope” is connected to our spiritual practice of gratitude. For Dickenson, hope is a living song that perches in our being. Never asking for anything; always available for those who cultivate a capacity for listening. Perhaps this song of hope is an awareness that nothing in my life is promised to me. Each day, each moment, a gift. I imagine it is no coincidence that the title of Bob Marley’s famous song is Three Little Birds. “Hope” is the thing with feathers, singing “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

I notice that Bob Marley does not sing, don’t fear. Don’t cry. Don’t be angry. Don’t grieve. No. He sings, don’t worry. The word comes from the West Germanic origin meaning “to strangle; to slay or kill by biting and shaking by the neck.” And isn’t this what my worry does? This emotion can have a reductive effect on my capacity for hope. Which may be why this time in human history feels so full of anxiety. More and more my capacity for hope has been constricted, squeezed and shaken by gale and storm of dictators and fascists, pandemic and recession. If hope is a song then it requires me to breathe.

We can still be afraid and hold onto hope. Because courage can only exist alongside fear; choosing to risk vulnerability not knowing the outcome. We can still cry and hold onto hope. Because our tears are rooted in our capacity to feel deeply, which is why we cry only in times of great emotion. We can still be angry and hope. Because anger provides energy and fuel for action. It tells us that the world can and should be otherwise than it is. We can still be grieving and hope. Because it is the price of love. Dostoevsky wrote: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

I believe gratitude resists worry. It is the source of hope and cultivates joy. It seems to be both a verb and a noun; a practice. What does it mean to be grateful? Gratitude has its roots in Latin: gratus meaning “thankful.” And related to the word “grace” from the Latin gratia. Both words conveying the sentiment of “mercy, favor, and virtue.” Gratitude requires an expansion of being which is in natural opposition to the contraction of worry.

I am grateful, or another way of speaking, full of grace, when I practice mercy. Showing compassion and forgiveness when it is in my power to punish and harm. Mercy is related to justice, asking for accountability and restoration; we find this in our work for police and criminal justice reform. I am full of grace when I practice favor, which is giving out of my abundance and leaning into kindness. We find this in our work for economic equity and equality. I am full of grace when I practice virtue, which is living out my spiritual and religious values in the world. We find this in our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources which help guide us into covenant. Binding us together in powerful love and human experience.

Being full of grace only asks one thing of me; to let go and listen. In my chaplaincy ministry, I have been drawing heavily from the serenity prayer, written by theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

I have found that when I can let go of control over the things I cannot change, my worry and anxiety relax. I have the space to consider a third way outside of either/or thinking. I begin to consider both/and as options. Which is the doorway to joy. If life is suffering, and suffering comes from attachments, what would it be like to let go of the expectations I attach onto my intentions? Is it possible to experience joy in the midst of grief? Yes, it is.

 On Thanksgiving day, as I placed the masa on the table, along with corn husks, salsa, and olives, I looked up and saw the picture of my father. I felt that deep ache from inside my chest and a welling up of memories of prior Thanksgivings. Which was both beautiful and sorrowful. I longed for his deep laugh; his booming voice. And then, Fleetwood Mac started playing on the radio. My son scooped up a handful of olives and ran away with my mom laughing at him telling him to put them back. My partner poured drinks and sat down at the table. And all of a sudden, I knew my father was with me. Because my father was me, years ago. And I felt a deep joy; and I gave thanks. I was full of grace; happy to have this moment in time. Not because I earned it, but because it happened. Because it could have been otherwise.

Siblings in faith, this is what I mean by gratitude as joyful resistance. Often when I hear the word “resistance” I think of hard power. Marching in the streets and occupying space. Which is part of our long religious history and tradition. However, gratitude seems to exist as a soft power. The kind of power that allows water to carve out canyons. A spiritual practice of awareness of grace, shifting the understanding of control, and listening for that feathery creature that sings of hope. On this first Sunday of Advent, when congregations and churches around the world celebrate the theme of “hope,” I raise it up as a prayer for us all. An intention for this season that we cultivate together. And with it, may we breathe deeply in gratitude, and while breathing out, sing along with that little bird, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing, is gonna be all right. I said don’t worry, about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be all right.” And it will be; together. May it be so; in deep gratitude for you all and for this time we share. May all your spiritual practices be fruitful this season. Happy holidays. Amen.

Free and Responsible in Times of Unrest

Originally delivered to University Unitarian Church on 7/5/2020 as part of Independence Day weekend. You can watch the service on the UUC website HERE.

Good morning friends. It is good to be together again, even if it is virtually. I hope that this Independence Day weekend has offered rest and community. The sun is beginning to peek out from the clouds and the promise of Pacific Northwest Summer is almost here. Yesterday evening seemed beautiful, sitting on the deck, overlooking the garden. The air was calm with our bees coming home for the night. Then my 5 year old came out of his room saying the fireworks were too loud for him to sleep.

I thought of the veterans I work with and how 4th of July is a complicated holiday. Many of them love their country and find meaning in their service, and also must find ways to drown out the bombs bursting in air because their experienced trauma on the battlefield cannot distinguish the difference between fireworks and munitions. And even though laws have been passed around shooting off fireworks within the city limits, the night sounded like a battlefield.

For a people who profess to “support our troops” there seems little care for the impact our freedom has on those who have served. Pointing to a incongruity between what is said and what it done. This year, our nation’s birthday feels complicated and subdued, and not just because of COVID. We seem to be collectively struggling with the pains of growing as a culture and community after 244 years of existence. We continue to learn the intertwined lessons of freedom and responsibility.

A popular slogan reads, “Freedom isn’t free.” It is usually associated with military service as a reminder of the price paid in human lives to keep our country safe. Yet I look at our summer of protests and cannot help asking the question, “Who’s freedom are we celebrating?” Many Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are marching in the street because they don’t feel free. #MeToo did not emerge as a hash tag out of nowhere. Nor did #BlackLivesMatter. The promises of the United States of America have been too long in coming. And perhaps because what is promised has not been delivered, it is instead a lie? That freedom is not for all, but only for some: the white, the rich, the powerful, the normative.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Our Declaration of Independence is a living document that set the foundation of multiple freedoms along our nation’s growth. We know at the time of its writing there were vast swaths of humanity who would not benefit from its ideals. What it did was set the stage for freedoms in the future, all of which began with fighting and struggle, protest and civil disobedience and civil war. Freedoms which were never guaranteed until they were wrested from the hands of the rich and powerful. Freedom of Black people from slavery. Freedom for women to vote. Freedom to marry, whether another color or the same gender. Our country has known nothing but struggle to live up to the ideals we preach; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As a minister and chaplain, I wrestle with the concept of “freedom” philosophically and theologically. This uniquely human virtue feels out of place in the world as it is a constant struggle to achieve. Our universe is more clockwork than not with its laws of motion and energy, gravity and time. There seems little room for freedom. Religion still wrestles with the balance of human will and how it interacts with the Ground of Being; how can all powerful, all good and knowing God allow human beings to do evil. It seems that God’s freedom is limited by our capacity to do what we want. Existentialists acknowledge that there is much to being human that isn’t free; our genetic code, our being born in time and place, our growth and development; all of which is dependent on our parents and our community. The self-made man is a myth. No one does life alone.

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would write that human beings are “condemned to be free.” Because of the crushing weight that comes from the human struggle with forces outside of one’s self that seek to restrain the human spirit in its becoming. And these forces of limitation are everywhere: government and laws, church and state, family systems and social groups all provide containers to push against. And we push against our limitations perhaps because we believe we are inherently more than what our systems tell us. We are capable of imagining freedom as an ideal and put in the work of creating it. Planets and suns, moons and stars care nothing for freedom. Nor the dirt under our feet. It seems that the only part of our universe that cares about freedom are the pieces in it that flourish; life. To be alive is to seek freedom.

From its very beginning on this planet, life flourished against adversity. Its advantage was evolution, adapting to overcome. And even then freedom wasn’t so much a concept as it was mathematics and biochemistry. A species would expand until it couldn’t. Eventually covering the whole planet with biodiversity that ebbs and flows in balance created over millennia. Here in Seattle we know what happens when the freedom of the natural world runs amok. My neighbors spent days of time and energy to remove Himalayan blackberry from their backyard, which had crushed out the plum and apple trees originally placed there. The only other thing that survived back there was the ivy. And now that it has been removed, there is nothing. At least until life finds a way.

As human beings emerging out of this spirit of life, we have an intrinsic drive to be free. Which is why our own faith holds freedom as a covenanted belief. We Unitarian Universalists believe in freedom because it is what our faith has struggled to have for millennia; from the time of Arius and through the Protestant Reformation. A freedom to find our own connection to and relationship with life’s ground of being, however it is named. And our principles are not just a gathering of ideas but a formula, much like the Declaration of Independence. They move from individual to the universal. Our faith begins with the existential reality that a human being regardless of context has in themselves inherent dignity and worth. No exceptions.

Because if there were exceptions in this first statement, arguments could be made for exclusion. And we, as inherited from our religious ancestors, know the price of exclusion in the form of silencing whether it was through the prison cell or the bonfire. Yet, we are not alone in this universe, and so our freedom moves outward to include how we aspire to be with each other; with justice, equity and compassion. Which is not ruled by selfishness but through support, of one another’s spiritual growth in the human project. And that this growth strives for a balance between freedom and responsibility. Which is our fourth covenanted principle: “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Our faith recognizes that between freedom and responsibility is the necessary balance of power between “Can I?” and “Should I?” One of the lines I love from the movie Jurassic Park as the protagonists struggle with seeing dinosaurs created for human amusement is delivered by actor Jeff Goldblum: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And if we remember what happened in the movie, life found a way. There is a reason our bale blue dot of a planet is struggling with ecological catastrophe. It’s because we had the freedom to do with it however we chose without the foresight or the will to decide of whether or not we should have done it.

The word “responsible” comes from the Latin respondere, meaning to answer to. Our own word in English, to “respond.” So as we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to who or what are we responsible? From a theological perspective, I would say that eventually we are responsible to that source of life and love from which we all came. Which includes each other. Our freedom to search for truth and meaning is not done in a vacuum. It is always in relationship with other people and life itself.

Which is why our own faith struggles with this fourth principles. Everyone wants the freedom and yet it is painful to lean into the responsibility. I am completely free to, from this pulpit, say any number of things. This is one amazing part of our religion. There is no Pope or council of Bishops who can defrock me. I cannot be brought up on charges of heresy or deviance from doctrine. And yet, if I were to preach a theology of white supremacy, I would be held responsible to you all and to our faith. Not as a limit to my freedom but because of the injury such a declaration would cause to our siblings for whom white supremacy means their dehumanization. Just because I can, does not mean I should. We are better, together.

On this 244th anniversary of the United States of America, we are deeply feeling the dynamic tension created between freedom and responsibility. We are living a political, economic and religious system that says one thing: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And does another, as so many people have to fight this very system to be recognized as human beings. Just as cognitive dissonance is the increasing stress a human being experiences when holding contradictory beliefs, so too is our country writhing with the pain of political, economic and spiritual dissonance. And we will continue to do so until all are free.

There is no solution past this time that is comfortable. #MeToo is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #BlackLivesMatter is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #SayHerName is supposed to feel uncomfortable. I have heard voices say “I would support the movement if they stopped rioting. Stopped yelling. Stopped calling the police ‘pigs.’ Stopped being so disrespectful.” Yet no people under the yoke of oppression have ever gained an inch of traction until the escalation of conflict. We want our freedom from social unrest and not the responsibility that comes with preventing it.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the [Black American] has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

            These words were not written over the last few weeks but in 1967 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon The Other America. The civil rights champion of justice and freedom dedicated to nonviolent civil disobedience knew the origin of riots not as a disease but as a symptom. The actual disease being poverty, racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination. Diseases because they trouble the waters of civil society which says, at least in this country, that our health comes from being a “more perfect union” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For our religion and our country, our celebration of Independence Day is a call to remember our identity regardless of how painful, messy and hard the task. And just like the slogan “Freedom isn’t Free,” of course living together and flourishing is not without sacrifices. In this difficult time of COVID, we can not afford to ignore the other diseases which infect our community and country. Because they are just as deadly.

As we wait for a vaccine to be developed so we can reopen our country, our faith is poised to offer a vaccine for the human spirit. A vaccine which exorcises the demons of hate through the human capacity of powerful love. Our medicine is our covenanted principles, beginning with the self and moving outward into the community and to the Earth. When you wake up tomorrow morning, perhaps you can look at yourself in the mirror and pray, “I have inherent worth and dignity. I deserve justice, equity and compassion. I am free to grow and flourish and search for truth and meaning in my life. I have a right to my story and my destiny. I am committed to peace, liberty and justice for all. I am responsible, to myself, humanity and life.” Oh to go out into the world every day with that prayer, what miracles could it perform?

Perhaps it could breathe new life into these old words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Siblings in faith, our prayers and our freedom has never been for us alone. But for ourselves, each other, and the generations who follow us in this human project.

The unrest in our religion and the unrest in our streets are struggles of identity as we are called into that dynamic tension of freedom and responsibility. It will always be a struggle as we cannot help as human beings but to wrestle against the boundaries placed onto us. Perhaps the grace given to us as a species is our evolution as a communal creature where we recognize we are all tied together in our pursuit of freedom. That we have a responsibility to ourselves, our community, the Earth and that Holy Spirit of Life and Love to not let our own freedom crush the freedom of others. Because of this, ours is a faith of abundance. A faith of freedom. And a faith of responsibility. A truly American faith which serves to keep us, and our country, in covenant with one another and the identity we profess. May we have the courage and strength, as a people of faith and as citizens of this country, to continue bending that moral arc of the universe toward justice. And now, more than ever, let freedom ring. Amen and hallelujah.

Holy Riots: Pride and BLM

Originally delivered to Edmonds Unitaritan Universalist Community on Pride Sunday, 6/28/2020.

Siblings in faith, welcome to Pride Sunday! A festival of remembrance and resistance; a festival of “I will be seen!” and “We will never forget!” As we celebrate this holy day of Pride, the liberative work of love and justice is still in progress. And this Pride Sunday comes at a time when Black and Brown voices are rising loud, resonating with those voices that cried out fifty-one years ago at Stonewall. And just as the first Pride was a riot, so too does the movement of #BlackLivesMatter follow that eventual cry: “ENOUGH!”

As we struggle in a global pandemic, the normal festivities of Pride are muted. The parades cancelled. The packed bars empty. And impromptu street dance parties have given way to gatherings over Zoom. This year Pride has turned inwards, offering an opportunity to consider what this holy time may mean for all of us. As story after story comes out about human beings being murdered for the color of their skin, Pride is challenged to re-center the queer black and brown bodies who were there at the beginning. Today, what miracles can take place should the energy of Stonewall and #BlackLivesMatter come together?

Many a prophet have said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But what is this “justice” with a gravity capable of influencing the course of humanity? Some synonyms are “fairness, equity, egalitarianism, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality, right-mindedness, trustworthiness, incorruptibility.” With so many definitions, justice is complicated and messy. And it is different in every culture and every age. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is as old as Babylon and is still alive and well today, and so is the first Century Palestinian Jewish call to love those who persecute you and turn the other cheek when harmed.

We have many tools at our disposal to help our discernment. Distributive justice seeks only the proper dispersal of goods in transactions. Punitive justice wants to punish offenders for wrongs committed. Retributive justice demands restitution. Social justice attempts to bend society toward equity and equality. Restorative justice focuses on the complex needs of both victims and offenders. But when injustice happens, which one do we choose?

If I am driving down the road and somebody makes a mistake and hits my car, I would like them to pay for the damages. Certainly, that’s justice. But what if it’s a family that is scraping by with children to feed and medical bills to pay? Or a tech executive driving a Tesla? Or a person who is living out of their car and now cant get to work?

There are so many “what if’s.” Justice quickly becomes complicated and messy. What if they are a drunk driver? Or a woman who has just escaped from an abusive home and is in crisis? What if my son is in the back seat and is killed? Friends, the narrative of justice is very rarely a dualistic, right vs wrong, one size fits all episode of Law and Order.

Stonewall, like #BlackLivesMatter, are narratives of oppression and violence by the very systems that are supposed to dispense justice. Was the Stonewall riots just? At the time mainstream newspapers were more concerned about the police, their safety, and spoke about how the queer clientele were criminals anyways. Now history looks back at the moment, after half a century of marches and court battles, as a spark beginning the LGBTQ Rights Movement.

Are our current riots just? Is it justice when violence is payed back with more violence? Narrative and context matter. For too many years to be queer was to be a criminal. Just as it used to be illegal for women to vote. Or for people of color to drink from water fountains labeled “white only.” When oppression goes on too long and violence erupts, are they riots, or are they rebellions? Which brings to light that laws are only as flawed as the community who creates them. The power of moral justice, when righteous, can supersede and challenge legal codes and civil law. The Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, in his “The Other America” speech, said:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Which is why our Unitarian Universalist faith can both celebrate Pride and roll up our sleeves for the work of #BlackLivesMatter. Because we understand these riots are holy cries for justice! We are a people who believe that justice should uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Not just straight. Not just white. Not just male. Our faith strives for equity and compassion in human relationships. Our justice holds diversity and the capacity for nuance and growth. It seeks to balance freedom with responsibility, is democratic, and respects the conscience of both individual and community. Our justice promotes peace in all aspects. And takes into account a holistic view of life and creation as intrinsic parts of human flourishing.

Siblings in faith, this is the kind of justice that continues to bend the arc of the moral universe. It is this kind of justice, a queer black justice, a justice that is able to contain multitudes, uplifts complexity, and restores the human person, that when found, evokes a response of singing and dancing, of hips swaying and hymns announcing “let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

Which is why Pride became such a raucous, joyous celebration. Because queer justice is human justice. The riot at Stonewall was a holy call to jubilee that is still emerging. It is an eruption deep within the human spirit that, when witness to injustice, refuses to accept a universe that turns a blind eye to suffering. We curious mammals have a proclivity for creating newness in the world: we make powerful love manifest through our blood, sweat, tears and relationships. And when we reap the fruit of such arduous labor, our only response can be one that celebrates life lavishly.

Which is why we need the parades and dance parties and rainbow flags now more than ever! Because they represent a victory of the human spirit over those who say, “You’re too loud,” “Too liberal,” “Too politically correct.” “Too flaming.” “Too ghetto.” “Too emotional.” “Too Black.“ “You’re moving too fast.” Often times, these are the same voices who believe bootstraps are a proper response for when “life isn’t fair.” It’s a finger-wagging magical wand ingrained in childhood. Growing up, when I felt that someone or something had delivered me an injustice and I would scream “it isn’t fair!” I would inevitably hear from an adult, “Well, life isn’t fair.”

I understand the point; me not getting my way is not necessarily injustice. But arguing to be recognized as a person with worth and dignity is not the same as throwing a tantrum because I didn’t get cookies after dinner. Yet some hear the call from the margins, “We are suffering and dying! Help us!” as flippantly asking for “wants” rather than standing up for “needs.”
Now that I am grown with a child of my own, I agree—life isn’t fair. Because in my experience life shrugs at such metaphysics like fairness and equality. I can’t distill their finest points into atoms of compassion or electrons of generosity. Our universe goes about its clockwork business of laws that govern energy and matter. It leaves the messy business of humanity to us.

Perhaps because life isn’t fair, and that rubs my spirit the wrong way, I look toward the heavens and say “Hold my beer.” And commit to bringing fairness into the world. Just as I have the power to make love real, I also have the power to make justice real. Because isn’t that the point of all this? Our governments and institutions and civil society and churches and laws and constitutions and covenants are all human creations that attempt to bring some kind of justice into the world. And if the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, then that arc was fashioned long ago by humanity and it is our literal bodies lending weight to its completion.

Through the lens of human history, we know about many of those beautiful human bodies who refused to accept that “life isn’t fair.” Prophets have been nailed to trees for standing up and demanding justice. Just as black bodies are still hanging from trees. In our own tradition it was holy bodies seeking religious and spiritual freedom against a world who would burn them at the stake for heresy.

Our faith includes the mighty bodies of abolitionists who risked life and limb in opposition to the injustice of slavery. There were the resilient bodies of suffragists who demanded women have full agency in the destiny of their communities. Among our Saints the prophetic bodies of civil rights activists who gave their lives for freedom. And among them all, there were the holy, mighty, resilient, prophetic, beautiful queer bodies of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, fluid human beings. We are filled with Pride!

At the Stonewall Inn fifty one years ago when the queer community stood their ground against state violence and demanded the system uphold their inherent dignity and worth, their bodies bent the moral arc of the universe and human destiny would never be the same. And our tradition, with a justice rooted in our covenanted principles, has often been at the front of movements of freedom since our founding. And if we are going to celebrate Pride then we also have a commitment in taking that energy out into the world in solidarity with Black and Brown bodies who don’t have the luxury of publicly sanctioned and funded parades and dance parties.

And know this; celebration is necessary for a people who are committed to bending the arc of the moral universe. Without joy, laughter, fun and community, we will succumb to the temptations of futility and despair. There is a destructive lie in the mantra: “How can I laugh and enjoy myself when so many are suffering.” Especially in a country with concentration camps on our southern border, people of color being murdered by police, ecological apocalypse at our doorstep, and pandemic forcing us into isolation. My inner critical voice tempts me into despair, as if the only way I can be in solidarity is to suffer in solidarity.

No. A black queer love and justice rejects all attempts at dualistic, fatalistic thinking. A black queer love and justice is able to hold the human reality that we can experience joy and mourning simultaneously because that is what their very bodies have had to do for centuries. Which is why we are a gentle, angry people who sing. Which is why we are a justice-seeking people who sing. Which is why we are young and old together and we sing. Because we recognize that our joyous singing and celebrations are acts of holy resistance against the cultures of death that would refuse dignity and worth to all our beloved siblings. Certainly today, we need to celebrate Pride more than ever!

And just because we celebrate Pride does not mean we are absolved of our sins and responsibilities. Yes, I recognize that “sin” is a loaded word for our post-Christian faith. I believe a black queer love and justice invites us to acknowledge our sins; it asks I take responsibility for the harm I cause other people regardless of intentionality; that I admit to my very human failings in the form of phobias and prejudices and anger and hate that creep in due to my insecurities and fears of difference, otherness, and the unknown. Yes, my siblings, I have sinned; against you and Black communities and against the Earth. I commit, with your loving guidance, to being better.

Because it is through the painful process of humility and vulnerability that I find forgiveness for the harm I do to my siblings and to the Earth. Some believe that by leaning into vulnerability I make myself weak, powerless and deficient. But that is not what qualitative researcher Dr. Brene Brown finds in her years of studying vulnerability. Her data suggests that something queer happens when I choose curiosity and possibility; I become stronger than I could possibly imagine; that my letting go of my shame makes space for the difficult penance of transforming my heart, mind, body and spirit toward an orientation of love and justice. And when this happens, is it not a cause to celebrate?

Siblings in faith, we have so much Pride to celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to love. The freedom to be seen. The freedom to laugh, and sing, and dance for victories won and victories yet to come. Our joy is a sacrifice on the altar of the Spirit of Life and Love in praise for the strength and resiliency to stay the course and not lose our humanity in the process. Today we celebrate the conversion of hearts and minds toward a beautiful, sensual, black queer, love and justice which has oriented the arc of the moral universe from the very beginning.

Pride Sunday is a call to repent and hear the good news that love and justice will emerge victorious. That #BlackLivesMatter will be victorious. Because of the beautiful, sensual, black queer bodies who, along with people of faith and goodwill, lend their weight to the transformation of humanity. Let us go out, in humble solidarity, and refuse to accept the despair of the cultures of death. Instead, we go from this church with joy in our hearts and laughter in our bellies, to engage in the spiritual resistance of Pride. And commit to the holy movement of #BlackLivesMatter, which like Pride, is a holy riot of humanity. May we remember the call of Stonewall as we engage in this covenanted work together. Amen, and hallelujah!