Monday, June 23, 2014

Ignite the Flame of Empathy

I'm burned up about the state of our state, our nation and our planet.
I’m burned out as an activist because I don't seem to have the power to change it.

What is wrong with our leaders? Why don't they care? What is missing that they can be bought by the highest bidder, and lose their humanity?"

In 2006, when I wrote the Chalice Reading that I read earlier, I was in a more idealistic place. Back then, I had faith in UU's spiritual consciousness to lead.

The Great Turning. That's the book with the same title that UU’s read and discussed in our social action workshops. David Korten inspired us to develop Earth Community to turn our government away from corporate domination for wealth and world power to cooperation and partnership with the people.

I recognize significant gains over the past 8 years — more activists, and more progressive organizations speaking truth to power. UUs have become national leaders:
  1. Congregation-based Community Organizations like P.E.A.C.E. have become recognized as a force for social justice all over the country
  2. UUA adopted Move to Amend as an issue of immediate witness
  3. UU FL Legislative Justice is organizing state-wide

But, things haven’t changed much. In fact, things are much worse!
1. Our voices fall on deaf ears. They are drowned out by the Old Boy network at Tea Parties. 
2. Officials are blind to the pain of the poor, and they don't even mention them anymore. (If you don't say homeless, it doesn't exist). 
 3. I became one of the "less fortunate" by functioning as a default safety  net  for my family. I now know the desperation of austerity firsthand.
4. Survival of the fittest mentality rules and the people lose. There's a lack of empathy: concern for others and the common good. There's failure to live by the Golden Rule.
5. Macho politicians, like adolescent bullies, exalt their virility by scoffing at empathy. They can’t believe that austerity kills, that they might be vulnerable someday. They act as if only the lazy become sick, disabled, old, or destitute.
6.  They "man up," cut social programs and ridicule people served by them as weak "takers", needing a "nanny state."
7. We reap what we sow; austerity breeds deprivation and anger. Starving people grab the bread first and run with it. They learn survival, not care about others.
8.  Empathy is equated with feminine softness and surrender. Many men hate that in themselves –- it might mean they are gay. Women too –- it leads to exploitation

Instead of a Great Turning, we have its opposite –- a patriarchal plutocracy — government fascism for the rich. One of the best placards I have seen at a protest rally read, “The last time the government cared about me, I was a fetus!”

The mission of separation of church and state has drifted from not allowing the state to dictate individual religious beliefs — to an abdication by the state of humanitarian obligations: empathy, caring, morality and honesty in its laws and policies. George HW Bush praised the charity of the church (little points of light and hope) while his party dismantled government funding for social programs.
Separation of church and state has devolved into a destructive, artificial division of functioning along gender stereotypes (Riane Eisler introduced this in The Chalice and the Blade)

The church manifests the feminine: a model of empathy, spirituality and morality, symbolized by the Earth Mother, nurturer of all life with compassion and care, a maker of peace.

The state identifies with the masculine: the epitome of power, practicality, and action, symbolized by the hero warrior, strict father judge of law and order. (But not provider/ protector for family. Why?)

Capitalism allies with the masculine in big business -- the military-industrial-financial-media complex –- to produce, make money and profit, exploit resources, and dominate the world.

This division is depicted on the cover of the order of service. When I first looked at it, I was struck by how the artist read my mind because he used the new digital logo of the UUA chalice to symbolize UUs, and empathy. To me, it looked like a symbol of the feminine, as well. Is it synchronicity that the new logo came out just as I was writing this? Could there be a more fitting symbol for the power of peace?

The bags of money symbolize the money-driven materialism and greed of unbridled capitalism. The money weighs in more heavily than empathy, UU’s and all the other churches and points of light trying to help humanity. There is an imbalance, so justice will never come out of the “feminine” being separate and unequal to the “masculine.” They have to balance each other.

What can we do as UUs do? I have named the problems and possible solutions:

All people should strive for empathy as a mature strength, necessary for humans to function, thrive, and flourish.

Give more weight and value to feminine power. Home economics – - the production of goods and services in the home –- should count in the
economy. There needs to be a balance and sharing between the two.

Integrate empathy, in business and government for greater social/ethical responsibility Do not keep it separate or compartmentalized.

Open our minds to empathize with our opposites. Try on their ideas. Discuss differences. Recognize that staying in the circles of the liberal mind can miss the protection of conservative boundaries that could prevent bleeding our hearts and resources to death. For order and balance, we should meet in the middle.

Put teeth into Standing on the Side of Love, not just stand, but act. Hold officials accountable to serve the people. Get involved. Demand integrity. Make moral issues out of austerity policies, start class action legal suits against legislators who endorse unequal protection of citizens.

Recognize and reward empathy in people, especially in our leaders. Consider it an essential dimension of emotional health for good
relationships, marriage, intimacy, political leadership, or government office.

Live the UU principles. Empathy and the capacity to love is on a higher level of spiritual connection needed for a good life and good government.

Feed our own empathy. Listen to others from the heart. Resonate with the negatives they are experiencing. Validate their experience, share our own, extend a hand. Facilitate their connections to help if necessary. Be present with them. Empathy is what we do best.

Empathy and connection to you as a community of friends who care and work with me, beside me, and behind me sustains me through dark times, and keeps me going. Thank you for fanning the embers of passion to keep it alive.

Ignite the Flame of Empathy, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by Judy Kraft on June 22, 2014.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Facing the Challenge of Challenging Times

A couple of years ago I visited the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida, in Naples, Florida. For those of you who have not visited the Holocaust Museum I encourage you to do so. The museum has many artifacts from the Holocaust that tell the stories of the brave men, women, and children who were not only victims of persecution, but who have also lived meaningful and heroic lives in response to their persecution.
The tour is a sobering experience. The museum gives a historical accounting of the unbelievable human cruelty of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of millions people, but it also gives an emotional understanding of that awful experience that seeps into the bones of your soul, the DNA of your spirit. 
As I was coming to the end of the tour I saw a collection of children’s poetry on the walls that was especially moving, so I approached the woman greeting people at the counter hoping to get some more information. The woman, Annaleese, who spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent and a tremor in her voice, was gracious and helpful in answering my questions about Holocaust poetry. During our conversation Annaleese informed me, in halting and carefully chosen English, that she was Jewish and that at the age of five she and her family were imprisoned in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Despite the daily experiences of death, persecution, and fear Annaleese was able to survive the concentration camp, although she was the only member of her family to do so. 
After the war ended, Annaleese and her husband settled in Czechoslovakia, only to have that country fall under the totalitarian reign of Soviet Communism. Annaleese recounted a conversation with her husband sitting at the kitchen table. He said: “Annaleese, we have lived under two totalitarian regimes, that’s enough; we owe it to ourselves and our children to try something different, something better. We need to go to the United States.” 
So Annaleese and her husband made plans to leave Czechoslovakia. They tried to escape to the West twice, but were caught and turned back by border guards. However, on the third attempt they were successful and made it to Switzerland where they got visas to enter the U.S.
But their journey was not over. When they arrived in the United States they had no money, no work, no family, and no friends. However, upon arriving in the U.S. they met two people who befriended them who told them, “We have relatives in Milwaukee. Come with us and we will make a life together.” 
Annaleese and her husband left for Milwaukee with their new-found friends, found work, and raised a family. But Annaleese’s struggles were not over. Not only was she a survivor of the death camp, but she was also to survive the death of her husband and her own breast cancer.
I could not help but ask her that with all her struggles and challenges in her life how did she find the hope to continue. She paused, thinking carefully about what she was about to say. She then went on to say, “I don’t think I would call it hope. It’s different than hope, it’s about survival.  Each day you are faced with hurdles and given a choice: “Are you willing to go over the hurdles in front of you? In facing those hurdles you must develop and draw upon an inner knowing that can come only from going over the hurdles one at a time, day by day.” 
Let me say that again: Each day you are faced with hurdles and given a choice: “Are you willing to go over the hurdles in front of you? In facing those hurdles you must develop and draw upon an inner knowing that can come only from going over the hurdles one at a time, day by day.”
Some people may call Annaleese’s “inner knowing” hope, determination, courage, stubbornness, integrity, or resiliency. I call it Freedom. Everyone, sometime in their lifetime, is challenged to survive difficult, traumatic, even life threatening events. We become survivors of these events by using our inner freedom to make choices about how we will react to these challenges and how we will lead our lives despite the challenges.
In our country many have what I call an immature, even banal understanding of freedom. We have the “freedom” to own unlimited numbers of guns regardless of how that “freedom” may impact others. The “freedom” to make as much money as you can without governmental regulation, taxation, and regardless of the impact on the environment. Perhaps you remember the statements from the presidents of Papa John’s Pizza and Whole Foods Grocery criticizing universal health care because it would interfere with their freedom to run their companies the way they wanted to.
Our Unitarian Universalist religion gives us great “freedom”: The freedom to find our own truth, the freedom to worship, the freedom to express ourselves.  Annaleese Salomon and many other heroic people of the Holocaust, are living examples of how to use our freedom to choose courage over fear, action over paralysis, and hope over despair. And no matter how difficult the situation, we have freedom to choose. 
The Monday after Thanksgiving 2012, I was sitting in my dermatologist’s office waiting for the results of some tests. When she came through the door she said: “Well you definitely have cancer, and it’s definitely melanoma.” I don’t remember much after that. Whatever my doctor said was lost in a blur of shock and disbelief. This was not supposed to happen to me. At 53 I was relatively young, I took care of myself by exercising and eating healthy, and yet the tests didn’t lie — I had cancer. This couldn’t be happening, but it was.
I remember getting angry. Angry at the doctors for not diagnosing me sooner. Angry with myself for not seeking treatment sooner. Angry at God and the world because I had this terrible disease just when my life seemed to be coming together. At the time I was completing my seminary education, had changed careers from law to ministry, and after a difficult divorce had found a woman I loved deeply and had been looking for all my life.
 All my hard work was about to pay off. This wasn’t fair. It was supposed to happen to someone else, but it hadn’t. It happened to me.
I remember feeling such despair. Melanoma cancer, especially a deep melanoma such as mine, is not a good diagnosis and my family has a history of people dying of cancer. One of my relatives had even died from melanoma. The doctors were able to surgically remove my tumor, and thankfully the cancer had not spread to other parts of my body. However, because the tumor was so deep there is a good chance the cancer will return and the 10-year mortality rate for people with similar cancers is 50%. 
My cancer left me with so many questions. Why did this happen to us? How will I carry on and get through this?  What if the cancer came back? How many years did I have left? What was I supposed to do with the “rest of my life?” I had so many questions to answer and so many decisions to make. What to do? 
The philosopher Nietzsche said: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” With all due respect to Nietzsche, he is wrong. Some things happen that don’t kill us but can leave us forever broken. Violence, poverty, illness, death and loss change us, and many times not for the better. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger only if we recognize what is happening to us, and then incorporate, integrate, and intentionally live out that wisdom in the world.
I’ve been a hospital and hospice chaplain, but never a cancer patient. I’ve always been at the side of the hospital bed, but not in the hospital bed. However, what I’ve learned from my experience with cancer has changed my life, and my ministry, forever. Once I got through some of the shock and anger of my cancer diagnosis and started reflecting upon my experience and integrating it into my personhood, I remember thinking, “I need to survive this disease so I can bring to the world what I have learned.”
So what have I learned? Suffering has an inner journey. We never “get over” a death or significant loss. “Getting over” implies we can cure our loss by the passage of time and without understanding our pain and the magnitude of our loss. Instead of getting “over our loss,” we must “go through” our loss and fully embrace all the feelings that come from our loss.
Life is paradoxical. Many times when it comes to making choices and using our freedom the right choice is not the most obvious or easiest choice. I recently heard a research psychologist say we cannot selectively feel our emotions.  What she meant was that humans tend to want to feel only the “pleasant” emotions like joy, peace, and love and minimize “unpleasant” feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger. Through her research, however, she discovered that we can’t dull our ability to experience one kind of emotion without dulling our ability to experience all our emotions. In other words, if we want to feel joy, we must also feel sadness. If we want to experience peace, we need to experience anxiety. And if we want to know the source of our love, we also need to know the source of our fear. If we try to desensitize ourselves to one feeling all we do is anesthetize ourselves from life, never experiencing the full spectrum of our emotions and the fullness and depth of our lives.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I visit people who have less than 6 months to live. But despite this diagnosis, patients and families are often in denial about their diagnosis. Some families ask me not to tell their loved ones I’m a chaplain or that I work for hospice because that will confirm for their loved one that they are, in fact, dying.  A fairly common response I hear when I ask people how they are coping emotionally with their diagnosis is: “There isn’t anything I can do about it, so why get upset by thinking about it”
I respect their decision. Sometimes we need time to adjust to change. Denial is a coping mechanism. However, it isn’t a very good coping mechanism. Suffering, tragedy, loss, illness, death and other life challenges are woven into the fabric of life; no one gets through this world without experiencing them. The question is not why do these things happen to us, but what do we do in response to them? Having experienced challenges, how do we use our freedom to create new meaning and purpose for our lives and the world?
Cancer took away my illusions of invincibility and I needed to mourn and grieve that loss. Grieving loss is hard, difficult work that takes time, effort, and the support of loving people. This is part of the inward journey towards healing. If we do our work, if we engage our feelings, face our mortality, and understand we are not in control of our lives we can eventually get to the other side. And when we get to the other side we realize we are not “over our loss,” but instead are forever changed and transformed by our loss. And that is where we find hope.
Choosing to face our fears has an outward component as well. Each year I participate in the Relay for Life to raise money to find treatments for cancer, to honor those who have experienced the journey of cancer, and to remind me of my own journey. My participation has connected me to a cause greater than myself. And knowing that I have contributed to a cause that will continue after I am gone has helped me to heal. 
Healing ourselves brings new life not only to ourselves, but also the world; perhaps not physical healing, but emotional and spiritual healing. We can’t “fix” people and no one, even those who have the same illness, can ever totally understand what it is like for another person to suffer from an illness. And yet, we can choose to walk with a person and their family and friends as they make their journey. We can help people, should they choose, to find reconciliation, resolution, meaning, and most of all hope in their lives. Hope that closes the gulf of estrangement, fear, and separation that develops between us and the world when we are challenged, and replaces it with the relationships of understanding, compassion, and love. 
We can love people just as they are, with all their anxiety and anger. Because by showing love we help people realize they are, in fact, loveable and part of the greater community of humanity. And once people realize they are loveable and supported by other people, then a healing can occur that transcends any illness and reconciles any estrangement. And it is this healing that brings new life and hope into the world.
I don’t tell you my cancer story because I’m some sort of hero; I’m not. And my experience pales in experience when compared to Annaleese’s, or to the challenges faced by many of you in this church.
I will never be one of those people who say that because of the positive changes in life, “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them.” If given the freedom to choose I would never choose to have cancer. But although we don’t have a choice about getting ill and dying, we can choose how we live in response to illness and death. 
Each of us have varying degrees of freedom, and none of us has complete freedom. Our freedom is limited by our childhood, upbringing, and life experiences as well as by societal factors like race, education, gender, class, sexual preference, disability, and many others. But we all have some degree of freedom. And just because we don’t have complete freedom, doesn’t mean we can’t use the freedom we do have to choose hope, peace, and love.
Some of you may say how can my little freedom, my little choice, change the world? Well I can tell you it does.  We are all part of the interconnected web of existence. Therefore, if as Shelia Cassidy says, “No cry is unheard, no pain lost;” so too no act of kindness goes unnoticed nor is any act of compassion wasted. If payer and pain are saved, processed, stored and used in the Divine Economy, so too are sympathy, understanding, and acceptance. If the bloodshed in El Salvador irrigates the heart of the financier a million miles away, surely the tears shed on behalf of a dying person wash away some of the barriers that separate us. If terror, pain, and despair resulting from an earthquake will be caught up and fall like mist on the arid hearts of the despairing, so too must standing beside the oppressed bring the spring rain of hope, love, and  new life  into the world.
So when you experience challenges in life, choose to feel your pain, your loss, and your grief. For by feeling your pain and loss you may also feel peace, healing, and hope. Reflect upon your loss, and then take what you have learned and help others to heal, and in the process heal yourself and heal the world.
We are all survivors. Sitting next to you today are survivors of illness, physical and emotional abuse, discrimination, divorce, unemployment, poverty, homophobia, death of loved ones, addiction, disability and other forms of loss. The world is still not “free” from these forms of suffering; however, we have the freedom to choose how we will live our lives in response to this suffering. Like Annaleese who survived so many challenges in her life, we have the freedom to choose. Hope never goes away. As circumstances change our definition of hope changes, but hope never completely goes away. There is always the freedom to choose hope.
I leave you with these words by Macrina Wiederkehr:
I was just thinking
one morning
during meditation
how much alike
and baking powder are:
getting what is
best in me
to rise,
the hint of eternity
I always think of that
when I eat biscuits now
and wish
that I could be
more faithful
to the hint of eternity,
the baking powder
in me

 Amen, Shalom and May It Be So
Facing the Challenge of Challenging Times, a sermon by UU Ministerial Candidate Roger Grugel at 1stUUPB, June 8, 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Semblance of Equality

Nearly 20 years ago I was traveling by car from Boston, Massachusetts to Orlando, Florida on a road trip to Disney world. I was joined by Richard, my grandmother and our 9-year-old son Antonio. You might imagine I have plenty of stories to tell about a road trip to Florida with a 9- and 80-year old in tow. We had been driving all day and decided we would stop for the evening in South Carolina. We had enjoyed staying in cabins on campgrounds down the east coast. I’m more of a Hilton than a campground person, but the cabins had been adequate and charming.

We called ahead from the road and booked a cabin in South Carolina. We offered our VISA card so we could arrive that evening and simply settle in. The cabin owner was more than happy to leave the door open for us as we would arrive late. We eventually made our way to the campground and drove around and around and around and around the narrow dusty roads looking for our cabin.

It turned out that we had driven by the cabin several times. It wasn’t that we didn’t have a good sense of direction. It was because the cabin we had rented wasn’t  a cabin at all. It was a pop- up camper. Imagine our surprise and my disgust. Imagine helping an 80-year-old woman into a pop-up camper using a wobbly cinder block placed in front of the door as a step. Imagine all of us climbing up and in and not being able to turn around or move because there wasn’t any room to move. Two of us needed to exit while the other two transformed the couch and the dining table into beds. 

Once the two were in bed, the other two could re-enter and take their places. Of course Richard and I took the bunk very close to the ceiling.
But we didn’t stay there. You see later that evening my grandmother got our attention. She had been sleeping on the dining room table/bed below our bunk. As she was lying there she could see and feel our bunk collapsing under the weight of two adults. The bunk was beginning to bow and she could tell being crushed was imminent.

So two of us exited the pop-up camper to allow for bed reassignments. We put my son in the bunk to solve the problem and then two of us re-entered and took the couch. All was well until the wind picked up and we could feel the gentle sway of our “cabin” in the breeze. The back and forth motion as our “cabin” was a cabin on wheels. The full bath that we were promised was about half a mile down the road. 
Needless to say we were duped. We had been promised, been assured of, a quaint cabin in the South Carolina forest with comfort, rest, and a full bath. Sure you might call it a cabin, it was in the forest, and there was a full bath available. We were promised something that was misleading and in the end couldn’t be delivered.

I tell you this story because equality in our country seems to bear a likeness to the accommodations I’ve described. We are promised equality but in the end are misled and true -- or full -- equality isn’t delivered. Let’s think about this dilemma in light of the work of Ronald Heifetz.

Ronald Heifetz is a senior lecturer in public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and founder of the Center for Public Leadership. I’ve studied his work related to leadership and call on this work regularly in my ministry. Recognized for his seminal work on both the practice and teaching of leadership, his research focuses on building the adaptive capacity of societies and organizations. He teaches an approach that allows us to identify adaptive and technical responses to problems moving us toward adaptive approaches.

In "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz defines  "Adaptive Leadership" as the practice of mobilizing people to not only survive difficult challenges but thrive. "Thriving" in this sense means growing, improving, capitalizing on the change. According to Heifetz “to lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear -- their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking -- with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. Heifetz describes technical and adaptive challenges.

So in this instance the challenge is the semblance of equality -- a situation where we are made to feel and believe we will receive and experience equality but never quite reap the benefits and protections of true equality. The technical response to the challenge of the semblance of equality is legislation and policy-making equality the rule.  The adaptive response to the challenge of semblance of equality is to see the policy and legislation as a good first step but going deeper and working to change habits, behaviors, values, and beliefs making equality a way of life.

Let’s apply that focus on adaptive and technical challenges and responses to issues of equality for the LGBT community, women, and minorities in our country. The right to marry for the gay and lesbian community seems to change day by day. More and more courts and legislation in many states are allowing the equal right to marriage. This is a technical response to and adaptive challenge. By no means am I suggesting that legislation and progress made by the courts shouldn’t be counted and celebrated. But the technical response gives the semblance of equality. When marriage became legal for gays and lesbians in Massachusetts it was a huge step toward equality for the LGBT community. But after the press conferences, the celebrations, and marriage licenses were issued we soon realized that the legalization of marriage was a semblance of equality.

I married my husband shortly after it was legal to do so in Massachusetts. And at the same time my car with my children riding in the back seat was followed and chased and our safety was threatened because I was gay. We were harassed, called names, denied privileges that others enjoy, and friends were being victimized and killed.

Yes there was progress but not true equality. And there still isn’t.  The adaptive challenge of true equality for the LGBT community requires an adaptive response. Not only do we require legislation to protect our rights. Equality comes when we adapt and change our values, our beliefs, our understandings and adapt, change. The technical response makes us feel like we have arrived but we soon discover we haven’t.

The same is for women in our country. Let me read to you this outrageous quote: “Educated, modern, intelligent and liberated women are the pillars on which a society stands. Today, women in America have the same rights as men. They work, live, vote, have all the legal, social, and financial rights just as men. But this was not always the case. Let's trace their history from the colonial times to the present.”  End quote.

Yes let’s trace that history. This quote makes my point perfectly. Women have received equality throughout history but that equality is the semblance of equality. Women have been afforded rights, but that doesn’t mean they have been afforded the opportunity to exercise or benefit from those rights. The person quoted believes that women are fully equal because of the technical response of legislation and policy that tell us they are equal. Yet they still struggle with sexism at work, are paid less than men, are raped and abused. The adaptive response to this adaptive challenge would be to place equal value on women and men. True equality can only come when we change our attitudes, beliefs and values about women.  When we adapt, change.

Take for example minorities in our country. We are so sure that minorities have achieved equality that the Supreme Court upheld the law by a vote of 6 to 2, concluding that the state's voters have a right to decide whether or not affirmative action should be allowed. Why should it be allowed? Minorities are enjoying their equality. We don’t need it.

This might be the most bitter semblance of equality. Minorities have all kinds of protections on the books that act as the technical response to an adaptive challenge. Despite those protections racism is alive and well in our country. People of color continue to receive some of the same treatment they received in the Jim Crow South and still are sometimes killed simply because they are people of color. Schools identifying themselves as private are moving the white kids out of public schools creating a segregated education system.

Students that are not white suffer far more severe consequences in our schools and in our courts than their white peers. Right here in our own county. Friends, minorities have not achieved equality. And they won’t until we apply an adaptive solution by changing our attitudes, beliefs, and values about minorities. When we adapt, change.

In an interview with radio host David Barsamian, Noam Chomsky tells us that “Power systems do not give gifts willingly.” In this case the gift of equality. He says, “Occasionally in history you will find a benevolent dictator or a slave owner who decides to free his slaves, but these are a statistical anomaly. Those with power will typically try to sustain and expand their power.” He says, “It’s only popular activism that compels change.” In the same interview Chomsky tells us “Anything that might benefit the general population has to be cut, because the goal of society must be to further enrich and empower the rich and powerful.” 
This is where we as Unitarian Universalists come in. We are the likely candidates to compel change. Adaptive change. Change that exposes the adaptive challenge and works toward an adaptive solution by building new and sustainable ways to move beyond the semblance of equality and teach, practice, and insist on true equality. And perhaps most importantly we dedicate ourselves to continuing to learn.

My ministry continually focuses on reeducating myself and others in realizing that there is still work to be done. We have not arrived. There remain times when the words coming from our pulpits are insensitive and offensive because we have forgotten we are reaching out to all — not many or a few. 

There are circumstances where community sometimes means “some” and not “all” because we create roadblocks to full participation in the life of our communities. There are times when some feel less than because institutional racism, generational poverty and the like are perpetuated. If we are serious about celebrating diversity, inclusiveness, full participation, true equality, we must relentlessly remind ourselves that we have much to learn.

The work of our faith and tradition are our protest, when combined with the protests of others, can make a difference, can nudge this world closer to more love and more justice, and more compassion. Our protests can be responding and criticizing what we see as crimes against human dignity, or our protests can be in the form of acts to promote what we value. We know that our work is not done when policy and legislation are formed as equal protections. These are the good first steps. The real work and solution is grassroots. Showing our communities the way to deep love. Unitarian Universalism is the hope and possibility for a broken world. 
A colleague of mine has these words framed over his desk: "In those days we finally learned to walk like giants and hold the world in arms grown strong with love. And there may be many things we forget in the days to come, but this will not be one of them."

To me, this is a vision of who we are called to be as people of faith. To walk like giants and hold the world in arms grown strong by love. So let's get on with it. There are gay and lesbian sisters and brothers who live right here, who deal with contempt and hatred and fear every day. There are women, our sisters, who are in at risk and in danger. There are our brothers and sisters of color who after all this time remain bound. There is a lovely and troubled world crying out for more and more love. Let's get on with it. We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.

May it be so.

Semblance of Equality, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on June 1, 2014.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Flower Communion

You may already know that the Flower Communion is one of the most popular rituals celebrated by Unitarian Universalist congregations across the continent. Yet, very few of us know much about the remarkable man who created our annual Flower Communion.

Norbert Capek was his name. He was a Czechoslovak ex-Catholic, ex-Baptist liberal religious heretic who finally found his home as a Unitarian minister. He is our most recent true Unitarian martyr. He dreamt of a new religion, unheard of in his country, founded not on dogmas, but as he put it “on the divine spark, which is in each person’s, own soul”.

His life story and depth of spirit captured my heart. The message of hope and freedom and joy he brought to his people in a time of orthodoxy, intolerance and oppression is one we need to hear now. Especially in this climate of increasing religious fundamentalism and political fascism.

Norbert Capek’s parents were not well educated and didn’t have much money. He was sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Vienna when he was 14 and worked as a tailor until he was 18. When his relatives discovered that he no longer practiced Catholicism and even worse, had been secretly baptized, they kicked him out. But instead of going back to his parents, Capek, with a fire in his soul, became a missionary for the Baptists.

At the time the state religion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Catholicism. Anyone practicing another form of religion was subject to harassment and often violent attacks, while the police looked the other way. “Baptist” was not even recognized as a religion to check off on official forms.

Even within the Baptist tradition Capek’s ideas became progressively more liberal -- so much so that the Catholics and Evangelicals were hinting at heresy. The Austrian censors increasingly refused to print his articles. It came to a head when even his Baptist colleagues and members of his congregation turned on him and began to question his orthodoxy.

In 1914 a friendly police commissioner tipped Capek off that he was on the Austrian blacklist and suggested he get out before he was taken to jail. At this point he was at the end of his rope. He and his family were often sick due to lack of food. So he and his wife and nine children left Bohemia, grateful for an offer to serve a small Baptist church in New York City.

But Capek did not escape trouble with the Baptist church by coming to the United States. Later that year he was tried for heresy, but was exonerated. Five years later he left the Baptist ministry. He concluded in his diary, "I cannot be a Baptist anymore, even in compromise. The fire of new desires, new worlds, is burning inside me." More than once Capek was told that his extreme liberal views were really Unitarian.

After leaving the Baptist church, to earn a living for his family, he became a journalist. As the editor of various journals, Capek continued to be quite outspoken in his anti-clericalism.

In order to find a new spiritual home, Norbert and his wife Maja sent their kids out, like scouts, to explore the different churches in the neighborhood. The kids would come home and tell their parents what they learned in Sunday school. When Maja and Norbert finally liked what they heard they decided to check out the church for themselves. That church they then ended up joining was the Unitarian Church in Orange, New Jersey in 1921.

The minister of the church introduced them to the American Unitarian Association president, Samuel A. Eliot. Capek convinced Elliot that Eastern Europe was hungry for the good news of liberal religion. With financial backing from the AUA the family went back to Prague and started a Unitarian congregation.

In just 20 years the Prague church became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world -- with 3200 members. Like some in our congregations today the people in that congregation were spiritual refugees from many different backgrounds. Theologically they formed a very liberal humanist (yet theistic) congregation who tended to distrust religious language and didn’t like ritual. Sound familiar?

Capek believed it was important to have some kind of a ritual to celebrate this diverse community. He created what he called the Flower Festival and held the first Flower Festival Service in 1923.

Capek felt that orthodox Christianity’s doctrine of human depravity was itself sinful. In a sermon he called the human soul “the spark of God”. He writes:

There is in every soul a thirst for something that is higher and greater than all science and all art…. We call it by different names but in essence it is nothing other than a hidden cry for…harmony with the Infinite. God is…the soul of our soul and the life of our life…Closer than breath and one’s heartbeat is [God]… Every person is an embodiment of God and in every one of us God struggles for a higher expression…. We light the spark of God within ourselves when we serve others and bring a bit of glow and joy to other people’s lives.

"Religion," he said, "can never die because human beings cannot but be religious, regardless of the form of [their] religion."

Norbert’s wife Maja was always a partner in the work and in 1926 was herself formally ordained a Unitarian minister. In 1939 she came to the United States to lecture and raise money for the fledgling Czech Unitarian network. It was then that she introduced the flower communion at the First Unitarian parish in Cambridge.

When the war broke out she couldn’t go back to Europe, so she stayed in the United States and served as a minister in several congregations in New England. I imagine it must have been heart-wrenching for her to have been cut off from any news about what was happening at home.

Frederick May Eliot invited Norbert Capek, along with his daughter and son-in-law to come to the United States as a ministers-at-large for the AUA. They declined, choosing instead to minister to their people in those terrible times.

Back home, the Germans were closing in. The Gestapo was now closely monitoring Capek -- sitting in on his church services and listening to his sermons. At his 70th birthday party Capek’s congregation gave him a radio. It was a capital crime to listen to foreign broadcasts, but Capek did it anyway. Every evening in secret, he would tune into the BBC for news of the war.

He shared what he learned with his congregation in the subtle form of parables and stories -- things the Czechs would understand, but the Gestapo officers wouldn’t catch on to. In this way he was able to continue to preach against oppression and minister to his congregation.

He did eventually get caught. He and his daughter were both arrested for listening and spreading news of the war. Capek was sent to Dresden for 11 months and then, just when his term was almost up, Hitler cracked down -- and orders came to send him to Dakaow his papers were stamped “return unwanted”.

UU minister Richard Gilbert writes: “While [Capek] was in Dakaow his courage in the face of torture and starvation was a source of inspiration to his fellow prisoners. While in the camp he led (his companions) in worship, using the Flower Communion ceremony as the ritual. Each prisoner brought what flowers they could find in the camp to a service. At the end they took with them a different flower than the one they brought, to symbolize their sense of community…  After the war, survivors testified that the Unitarian minister could not have been sent to a place where he was more needed."
His inspirational presence encouraged the others in the camp to endure. One survivor wrote: “If it hadn’t been for Capek I probably wouldn’t be alive now, nor would others who survived.”

Norbert Capek was executed on October 12, 1942. Before he was put to death, he wrote this prayer, reflecting on his own life and the state of his spirit:

It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.
Oh blow ye evil winds into my body's fire;
my soul you'll never unravel.
Even though disappointed a thousand times
or fallen in the fight
and everything would worthless seem,
I have lived amidst eternity.
Be grateful, my soul, My life was worth living.
He who was pressed from all sides
but remained victorious in spirit
is welcome in the chorus of heroes.
He who overcame the fetters giving wing to the mind
is entering into the golden age of the victorious.

Norbert Capek created the Flower Festival ritual to bring the people of his congregation together. His church, like most of ours, had members from many different religious backgrounds. He wanted a spiritual celebration that would not exclude anyone, but would celebrate the whole community.
Unitarian Universalism is a garden, wild with theological diversity. Members come in many varieties: Humanists, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Theists and Atheists and many combinations in between.

We are most definitely not a monoculture garden -- that is, a garden made with only one kind of plant, stripped of its wild spirit. Most gardeners will tell you that a “vast field of identical plants will always be particularly vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease” -- that is, susceptible to extinction. (Not to mention boring.)

It is in times of extreme religious conservatism that our liberal religious community becomes all the more precious. As the German occupation increased in Prague, Capek expected the numbers in church to dwindle. Instead he found the attendance swelling. Many people walked sometimes for hours to the Unitarian church on Sundays. Indeed, the spiritual community becomes life-giving.

So many people I’ve talked with, especially when I was in the Midwest, testify to feelings of relief and gratitude for having found Unitarian Universalism. In a sea of religious fundamentalism -- it is in this denomination that they are free to express and discuss and grapple with their theological ideas without fear of judgment.

There are some times when words cannot adequately capture meaning. That becomes the time for symbolism, for ritual. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Flower Communion is one of the very few rituals that most Unitarian Universalist congregations participate in annually. It is so simple and yet expresses so much about who we are as a community. A spray of many colors, textures, shapes and sizes mixed up together yet held collectively by a common container.

“Rituals of communion in all their many forms share a power and blessedness that transcends words yet reveal the truth of who we are. And that’s what we’re about today, noticing within a small ritual act something at the very core of our being, of what we are and what we can be.”
We put our little flower in a vase, it gets mixed up with flowers already placed there for those who have forgotten or missed the announcement, or are visiting us today, because that’s as it should be too. We always welcome new friends to join us. Then we pick a different flower chosen carefully and brought by someone else and we take it home. It is so simple…

But that’s the way it is, simple and complex at the same time. We are all mixed up together. With all of our diversity of thought and belief we find ourselves drawn together by the Unnameable Mystery.

I have led the flower communion several times now. I love the celebration of the beauty inherent in diversity. Each time I participate I find myself at first simply marveling at the splendor of the bouquet and how the ritual binds us one to another.

As it goes on I begin to ponder the fact that UU congregations all across the continent and even throughout the world also celebrate the flower communion and I realize how amazing it is to be connected in this way to Unitarian Universalists worldwide.

And then I consider that the flower communion has been celebrated by hundreds of congregations for over 70 years. And that this simple ritual was life sustaining for people in a Nazi concentration camp.

When we take a moment to contemplate all the people and all the history involved, this ritual becomes so much more than a flower exchange. It becomes a living vessel connecting us all through time.

May it be so.

Flower Communion, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by the Rev. CJ McGregor on May 4, 2014.