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!

Pentecost Sunday: Gifts of the Human Spirit

This sermon was delivered via Zoom with Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasco, WA on 5/31/2020.

Good morning Community Unitarian Universalist Church and thank you for inviting me to share in word and worship with you all. I say these words with the spirit in which they were written: in the spirit of life and love. Siblings, today Christian churches throughout the world are celebrating Pentecost Sunday. And as Unitarian Universalism emerges out of the Christian tradition, we too share in this day that marks the closing of the Easter Season. A season focused on rebirth, renewal, and hope. Which have been difficult to hold onto over the last three months. As scenes of anger, hurt, rage and pain play out across our country, I am called back to our siblings of the first century.

Translated from the Greek Pentekoste, meaning “fiftieth,” Pentecost became a Christian celebration 50 days after Easter Sunday. Derived from its Hebrew roots marking the “Feast of Weeks,” fifty days after Passover, Shavout is a day of remembrance of Yahweh gifting the Torah to Moses. Both feasts mark how a Holy Spirit of Life and Love inspired humanity into new ways of being as their worlds seemed to crumble beneath them.

As we heard in the story for all ages, Pentecost is a retelling of how the Holy Spirit granted the disciples and friends of Jesus of Nazareth with remarkable gifts: of language, interpretation, understanding and communication. All necessary gifts for compassion and empathy, helping bring an emerging religious tradition into the world; one with a focus on love of God and love of neighbor. A beginning that was marked with hiding in isolation after the state execution of the disciple’s teacher and friend. For centuries Christian communities would have to gather in small groups; huddled in their homes, afraid to go out in public.

Millennia later we too find ourselves hunkered down in isolation, wondering what the future may bring, and not knowing when an end to the hiding will come. These times are heavy not just with COVID and a failing economy, but reminders of the price of oppression on communities of the margins, with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Amid the tumult of our world, we need powerful spiritual gifts more than ever. And like the Apostles of the first century, who were also afraid for their lives, we Unitarian Universalists have holy gifts to face crisis and oppression with a gospel of love and justice. In these difficult times I wonder; what gifts of the human spirit are emerging for you?

As a chaplain working at the VA and Harborview medical center, patients and clinicians have been asking me “Why is this happening?” and “Where is God?” I recall holding the hand of a COVID patient gasping for air from a ventilator, and a nurse asking, “When will this end?” They are looking for answers that our current systems fail to give. In fact, it is because our systems are failing that we find ourselves grasping for meaning and security. The answer I give to these existential and theological questions is a reframing: “How are you getting through this?”, “How is God showing up for you right now?” and “What hope are you holding on to?”

We know that when fear and anxiety rise, and human beings feel unsafe, we can react with fight, flight, or freeze. A gift from our primordial origins to help us survive. And we are no longer in caves against a frightening and unknowable universe. We know we are not our fear. We are human beings experiencing fear. We have a choice in how to respond. Which I believe is a gift of the Human Spirit.

The question of “What did I do to deserve this?” becomes “What will I do with this?” Which allows all our emotions, like Rumi wrote, to be guests in the house of our being, giving us access to new ways of responding and learning. There is nothing wrong with your sadness. Or pain. Or anger. They are gifts of your being asking to be noticed. Today, my heart is broken and I am scared, for myself, my partner and my son. How might I choose life and love today? Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is choosing to act even while experiencing fear. However, the gift of agency is not enough.

Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl noticed that in the concentration camp, he could predict who would give in to despair based on the person’s capacity for resiliency. Resiliency being “the ability to recover quickly from crisis and trauma.” He found that lack of meaning in crisis could create an “existential vacuum” which then devastates a human experiencing extreme stress and despair.

Siblings, what grounds you in this moment? For some, it is the belief in a loving and powerful God. For others, it is the human will to live and flourish. For myself, I refuse to live in a universe or society devoid of love or justice. I may not be able to find a quark of compassion or an atom of empathy; that does not mean I cannot imagine these qualities into being. Therefore, another gift of the Human Spirit is our capacity for creativity – being able to make our hopes and dreams a reality. Not only can we choose powerful love, but we can also manifest it where it does not seem to exist.

Which points to the human ability to hold multiple truths at one time. I can be both heartbroken and hopeful. Our faith tradition is rooted in an ethos of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” A good example of this is through the research of sociologist Brené Brown. Her data reveals there is an intimate connection between the ability to be psychospiritually strong and our capacity to be vulnerable. She defines vulnerability as “experiencing uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” and that is it the source of courage, love, empathy and belonging.

In this time of uncertainty, can we choose vulnerability? It seems counterintuitive. When under assault we want to build our walls and raise our drawbridges to protect us from suffering. However, as we know, walls only serve to disconnect us from one another. As Pink Floyd sang: “All alone, or in two’s, The ones who really love you, Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand and some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

Our Unitarian Universalist principles provide a path to choosing vulnerability, allowing us to not only consider our own experience of dignity and worth, but put ourselves into the experience of another human being. When we take off our armor, we are open to com-passion: the capacity to suffer-with another. And only vulnerability will allow us access to this miracle. Because when we recognize our own suffering in the suffering of our sibling, we can choose to meet it with belonging. And research has shown that a key to easing the suffering of addiction, homelessness, mental illness, racism, sexism, greed and hate is in human connection.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded of the gifts of the human spirit; of agency, creativity and vulnerability. The sources of courage and compassion. Yesterday as I witnessed protests around our country, many of our Unitarian Universalist siblings were there. Choosing to show up and support communities of color and speak out against injustice and oppression. Filled with the human spirit of agency, creativity and vulnerability while marching in the belief that Black Lives Matter. Friends, as you go into the world this week, how might you use your gifts of the human spirit?

You woke up today worthy just as you are; what will you choose to do? Outside of the typical routines and reactions, what creative response of courage and compassion can you dare to imagine that will ground you in this moment? And how might you show up with family, friends, the stranger beneath the bridge and the person of color on the street, in intentional vulnerability, laying your heart open? We all have this power every second of every day.

Therefore, in this time of trial and suffering, you have the right to your joy. To your sadness. To both find hope in the flowers of Spring and cry over weeks of isolation. You have permission to breathe. To love. To look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I am worthy of belonging.” You are wonderfully and beautifully made in a universe open to your gifts. And nothing can take that from you. Because that is the foundation and vision of our faith; a faith of agency. A faith of creativity. And a faith of vulnerability. A human faith in which we covenant with one another to grow in gifts of the human spirit. May we go out into the world, like the disciples of old, filled with the fire of powerful love, a light that shines in the darkness which will never be overcome. May it be so. Amen.

Weathering the COVID19 storm in Seattle

Every day this week, my bus has been on time and I’ve arrived to work early. Only a pandemic like COVID19 could ease the Seattle traffic to pleasant levels. It’s a silver lining that I’ve held onto given the strange quarantine which has gripped the city. My bus has been deserted. I suspect that the only people on board at 6am are healthcare workers. My route: to the Veterans Administration of Puget Sound. I am a chaplain.

It seems all the dystopian literature I’ve consumed over the years has prepared me for these times. Compared to the nightmare scenarios of 1984 and 12 Monkeys, the current reality is difficult and not unmanageable. In my community, with school and library closures, event cancellations and struggling small businesses, neighbors are offering childcare, meal and medication delivery, and resource sharing. Local businesses are stepping up through free meals, services and hiring temp workers. It’s like Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.”

As a chaplain it’s my vocation to offer psychospiritual triage in every crisis. This morning at two different coffee shops filled with tech workers, exasperated parents with school aged children, and college students studying for finals, I asked baristas and patrons how they were holding up. I received wide eyes. Glances at the floor. Frustration at the disruption of life. And a begrudging acceptance of reality. In all the conversations was fear. In response I acknowledged their fear and offered solidarity. “I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together.” For a few the words brought tears. For most, a smile and a nod.

Chaplains are strange creatures. We’re a blend of mentor, councilor, therapist, spiritual advisor and preacher. Most of us are public theologians. As such, I wonder how to respond to quarantine and social distancing with creativity and the unexpected. The sacred always resists boxes. In conversation with my peers at the Veterans Administration, my supervisor shared this quote from CS Lewis (On Living in an Atomic Age, 1948):

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.

Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Yes, we are afraid. And it is possible to hope even while experiencing fear. So much in life can and will break our bodies. Every time I get behind the wheel of a car I invite destruction. I minister to too many accident casualties to truly feel “safe” on the road. And yet I choose to live life, perhaps more mindful of the need to be, as I tell my son, “kind, loving and listening.” I buckle my seatbelt. I put my phone down. I pay attention. I try not to speed. I commit to kindness on the road. Because we’re all in this together.

I am reminded of a story in the Christian scriptures (Mark 4: 35-41):

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Jesus’ friends wonder (and are more than annoyed) at his apparent calm in the face of certain destruction. For Christ’s sake, how can somebody sleep at a time like this!? (I imagine many in our moment are losing sleep) As a prophet Jesus knows the reality; that storms run their course. What is important is that they were together in the boat. Perhaps the disciples missed the point. It wasn’t about the power of control and domination over the elements. It is the faith that together we weather the storm. Siblings, where is your faith? What grounds you in this moment against the storm?

Every day of this outbreak I have woken up, gone to the gym, and come into the hospital. Because there are people alone in their hospital rooms, with cancer and infections and injuries and illness, who are better when we are together. COVID19 is dangerous and precautions are followed. There is a long road ahead. Yes I am afraid. I’ve read this story; I know the potential endings. I just believe in my ability to choose how to respond to the fear. And my choice is to show up. Because what dominates my mind is not to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It is knowing that I can make a difference. We all can. Every day.

Siblings of Seattle and around the world, I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together. You all woke up this morning already enough for this day. You were created with inherent dignity and worth. Today is an opportunity to live. And as St. Mary Oliver wrote in The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Three Simple Words

This homily was delivered at University Unitarian Church on Sunday, January 26,2020 as part of a rededication of the congregation’s #BlackLivesMatter banner. An audio recording of this homily (and others) can be found HERE.

Siblings in faith, I speak these words with the spirit in which they were written, in the spirit of life and love. Black Lives Matter. Three simple words that began with a Facebook post by Alicia Garza on July 13th, 2013: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” This love letter was shared on Twitter by friends and activists with the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter. Garza, a queer black social justice activist, was responding to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. It wasn’t until the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014 that the movement grew rapidly.

My ministerial journey was also born in the Summer of 2014 and has been deeply impacted by Black Lives Matter. As a chaplain and public theologian, and because I am Unitarian Universalist, I choose to read Garza’s letter as scripture. A brief epistle written to family and community because of compassion – she suffered with her people. Black Lives Matter are prophetic words from within the Black community to remember their own inherent worth and dignity. To remember that they are worthy of love. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” So I ask myself: what must it feel like for my life not to matter?

I bring this question with me into my Chaplaincy ministry: sometimes with a homeless veteran, a gunshot victim, a person dying of cancer, a child in a jail cell, a spouse losing a partner, a child losing a parent, and each and every time I somehow end up saying those same words when the pain of the world is too big to hold alone: “Javier. Sheena. Mr. Brown. Ms. Wilson. I love you. Your life matters.” I understand Black Lives Matter as a deeply Unitarian Universalist theological and ontological statement. Theological because our worthiness of love is attached to our very existence. Ontological because we are born to matter and to belong.

When the walking wounded walk into our community, I want them to hear: “I love you. Your life matters.” I believe all our principles and sources boil down to these words. They are about potential, not purity. Therefore, whatever the powers and principalities have made Black Lives Matter mean in the six years since it emerged, I understand it through its original context. A response of powerful love from deep pain and grief.

When I see the banner on the side of our church building, this is what I believe: “Black people. Brown people. White people. People without housing. The hungry. The poor. The oppressed. The marginalized. The undocumented. The refugee. The immigrant. The discriminated. The displaced. The sick. The dying. To mother Earth herself. We love you. We love us. Our lives matter.” When the least among us get free, we all get free.

Our banner challenges us to get out of our seats and into the streets and live our principles and sources into the world. Unitarian Universalism is a religion that aspires to create a world in which all life matters while recognizing that humanity as it is does not value the inherent worth and dignity of all lives and all life. We move beyond thoughts and prayers into action. If we don’t, we’re no better than the vipers and hypocrites who send only their thoughts and prayers. But that is not us.

Siblings in faith, Black Lives Matter is a commitment to love. A mantra. A yearning hope and an eschatological vision. A reminder for me to wake up. To love myself. To love my neighbor. And to love the Earth. It is who I believe we can be as a people of faith. Three simple words: I love you. Three simple words: Black Lives Matter. May we all be transformed by their power. Amen.

What are we waiting for? (Advent & Waiting)

What Are We Waiting For? was given as a sermon on December 15th, 2019 at Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. Welcome to the third Sunday of Advent, known in many Christian communities as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning: Rejoice! In many Unitarian Universalist communities, our own advent wreaths are lit on this Sunday with the theme of “JOY!” And here we are, together in this space, in this time and in this place, to rejoice together: to feel and show great joy and delight in our community and in our common-union. Thank you for welcoming me to Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Advent has a very special place in my heart. I grew up Roman Catholic, the son of a mother coming from a long line of German and Irish immigrants, and a father whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 20th century. Most of my life revolved around the interwoven celebrations of Irish Catholics and Mexican Catholics, who in my experience know how to both lament deeply and celebrate ridiculously. For my family, Advent was and is a time for preparation and expectation for transformation in the world.

Being raised in a high liturgical tradition, the year flowed differently from secular society. The Christmas season didn’t start on Black Friday (or as I know now, after Halloween). It started on Christmas eve at midnight mass. The four Sundays before Christmas marked the Advent season. They shifted from the green colors of “ordinary time” to the purple colors of “transition time.” In the Catholic church, there is another liturgical shift like this, marking the observation of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. Both Lent and Advent are 40 days long; both are a time of turning inward; a time for reflection, repentance, forgiveness, and hope.

The definition of the word Advent is “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.” For Christianity, the season of Advent is the celebration of the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth into the world. For Unitarian Universalists, it can be a time of multiple meanings: all of which involve some kind of waiting. Waiting for the Winter Solstice. Waiting for Hanukkah. Waiting for Kwanzaa. Waiting for the New Year. Waiting for the Capitalist Consumerist Industrial Complex to come to an end.

We all know that waiting is not an easy behavior for human beings. I am the father of a 5-year-old, and as he loves to remind my partner and me: “Ugh, I hate waiting!” I empathize with him. As a child my home would gently change through December with garland and lights, nativity mangers and ornaments; I would see presents begin to gather beneath the tree. Bright paper with bows and ribbons, every day was more excruciating than the next. Because all I wanted to do was find out what was in those presents.

Advent calendars, with tiny chocolate treats for each day of the season, added to the excitement. Every day came with a little bit of sweetness, with the knowledge that underneath each panel there was more chocolate. And for some reason to my own 5-year-old experience, that was never enough. I wanted it all now! The practice of waiting stretched me mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Now in my 40s I am thankful for learning the lessons of waiting, though I admit I am still learning when I am stuck in traffic on I-5.

For northern hemisphere pre-Christian cultures, there was a waiting in fear and hope that the fading sun and long nights would shift their course and light would come back into the world once again. Winter was not only coming, but it would leave, marking a transition back into daylight and abundance. Festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule, with their focus on rejoicing, were about bringing light back into the world at its darkest moments. As Christianity spread throughout Europe it is no wonder that Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”, became the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, who came according to the gospel writer John, as the “light of the world” and whoever followed him would “never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12)

My experience of Christianity is as a religion about waiting. With its eschatological focus, a focus on a future time, when Christ returns, and all creation is reconciled with the Creator. At its best, this waiting is marked in spiritual lives dedicated to “loving neighbor” as one loves themselves. (Luke 10:25-37) In a people who “turn the other cheek”, “go the extra mile” and who live a Christmas spirit year-round.

Advent, with its concentration on waiting, can have a spiritual effect of stretching time and space “thin.” In the Celtic tradition, thin time and space marks when the veil between life and death, sacred and mundane becomes permeable. Like in Unitarian Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is a time when spirits can manifest and challenge the living. And for Unitarian Clement Clarke Moore in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it is a time when jolly old elves fly through the air on sleds pulled by reindeer and where saints can slip down chimneys to deliver abundance to those of good hearts and deeds. I resonate with these authors sense of wonder: the Advent season was for me a season of miracles: when our United States culture somehow magically shifts from “God helps those who help themselves” to a spirit of generosity, compassion, and charity. A “Christmas Spirit.”

Listening to our story for all ages, it reflects so many of our cultural Christmas parables about the Spirit of Christmas. A moral play regarding the poor who despite poverty and abuse rejoice in the small blessings of a suffering life and who demonstrate almost impossible contentment. Little Gretchen, despite her grandmother’s admonishments, refused to give up her hopes and dreams, praying to the stars for a miracle. And then accepting Christmas day as it came; thankful for what is rather than for what was lacking. For Gretchen, Christmas day was about the blessings of the now. This is the innocence of a child that Jesus spoke to in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19: 14)

There is also a shadow side to this narrative; an insidious darkness which I witness played out in our own time. If a life is dedicated to a silent waiting of prayer and hope, like our poor Gretchen and her Grandmother, living in poverty, what changes? For Gretchen, it was the miracle of life and love that made Christmas day. Where were her friends? Her community? Her church? In many ways the Christmas story distorted can be a message of “be happy with your lot in life”; be happy with your poverty. Be happy with your slavery. Be happy with your disenfranchisement. Make do with the seasonal generosity of Merry Gentlemen of wealth and privilege. Better things are coming; just wait and see.

It is this part of the Christmas narrative that I preach against. Because as Unitarian Universalists, we are not a people waiting for a God to do the hard work for us. We are not children learning how to wait; we are a mature faith who, having learned the counter-cultural lessons of delayed gratification, can know the wisdom of both patience and action. We are a sacred faith, free from the dualistic thinking of “either/or.” We are a people of “both/and.” We look to a future beloved community AND commit to the hard work of the transformation of the now. We believe in the salvation and redemption of all people regardless of their wickedness AND we work to dismantle the systems and structures of evil in the world.

In our readings for today, we are reminded of the generational struggle between waiting and acting. For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he came to embody a spirituality of both/and in his activism. At the time of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, many of his liberal white peers were advocating for him and his movement to “stop and wait.” He says, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” He recognized that there was a time for both waiting AND a time for action. He refused to wait for a Christmas miracle; he decided to be the miracle.

Advent is a powerful time for waiting AND a time for action. The power in waiting comes from its seasonal focus on our inward work. As the days grow shorter and nights colder, creation invites us into the restoration found in spiritual hibernation. An invitation to reconsider our capacity for charity, for volunteering, for advocacy and for our relationships. It is a time to hope and pray with each other in solidarity, facing the darkness of climate change and fascism with the chalice light of community. Advent is a powerful time for action because at its end, we are forced to ask: “What are we waiting for?”

As President Barack Obama said in our second reading, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. … We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.” We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Advent for Unitarian Universalists is an opportunity to tap into the strength and resiliency with which to act in the world. Our waiting is a spiritual exercise in accessing the powerful resource that theologian and civil right icon the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes about in his book Meditations of the Heart: “It is the insistence of religion that the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness.”

Our season doesn’t begin with the waiting, just as Christmas doesn’t begin with Advent. Our season begins on the day we emerge into the world, filled with a Holy Spirit of life and love for prophetic work and transformative change. We do not do it for ourselves alone. We do it because we have inherited the success and struggle of our ancestors. We do it because that arc of history which bends toward justice has never bent itself. We do it for my child and our children and our children’s children.

Which is no surprise. Advent and Christmas has always been about children; and the dynamic tension between our desire to wait and their desires for now. We hope that they learn patience and they hope we remember urgency. Which is why this Advent song has always been my favorite:

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
They will bring us goodness and light
They will bring us goodness and light

In this song, written during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a challenge to both war and consumerism, creation and humanity call us into Advent. We are called to arrive. If we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the stars dancing in the night, it is our voices as big as the sea, we are the wisdom of shepherds who speak truth to power and transform the hearts of kings, and it is our children who will bring us goodness and light: because there are other children like shivering in the cold. Immigrants like my grandmother in detention centers. Mad leaders playing with our lives. There is a world on fire threatening our very existence. We can not just wait. We must arrive!

Siblings in faith, with so much darkness in the night it can be hard to rejoice. A Christmas Spirit seems almost impossible. And that is why we have Advent. Why we have a special season dedicated to waiting and healing; family and friends; gift giving and tree trimming. Which is why we light our chalice on Gaudete Sunday. Which is why we come together in this time and in this place. To hold each other tight. To tell the stories that kindle miracle and mystery in our children and rekindle our own sacred imagination. And when our children ask, “What are we waiting for?” We will tell them, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Amen.