Direct Democracy and UUA “citizenship” – part 3

1 Apr


My final (I think) post in a series on exploring what direct democracy might look like if we implemented it at the UUA is now available over on the Lively Tradition.

I am thinking it would be worthwhile to set up a few google hangouts on this topic, so if you are interested in having future conversations about this topic, please let me know!



from Selma to #BlackLivesMatter

22 Mar

Listen here:

Though the song does have its detractors, when Glory won the award for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards last month, not many people were surprised.

When Legend and Common performed it during the award ceremony, they featured a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a bridge iconic for the events which occurred there fifty years ago and which are brilliantly captured in the movie Selma, for which the song was created.

Coretta Scott King,John Lewis,Fifty years ago yesterday, on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march that spanned from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would not provide protection for the marchers, so President Johnson sent in thousands of Army and National guard soldiers, FBI agents and federal marshals. On March 25, over 25,000 people entered Montgomery in a show of support for African-American citizens to be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote – a demonstration that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

The march was the culmination of events that started, really, before even the colonization of this country, but was brought to immediacy by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson , in nearby Marion, AL. Jimmie 03Lee had been participating in a peaceful march for voting rights, when police attacked marchers. When his mother was being visciously beaten, he tried to get the state trooper to stop. Instead, the trooper shot Jackson in the stomach and began beating him in the head. Jackson’s death outraged the black community. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, came into town and gave the eulogy for him, and local organizers decided to funnel that outrage into action.

The successful march of 50 years ago was actually the third attempt. The first attempt occurred on March 7. John Lewis led the gathered crowd across the bridge where they were met by state troopers 04who attacked them brutally with clubs and tear gas. When I was on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage a few years ago, a poignant moment for me was being on the bridge and listening to a woman describe how the marchers were chased down by police on horses, riding even up church stairs miles away hunting people down. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

Martin Luther King, Jr, assessed the situation, came to Selma, and put out a call for clergy to come. 05On the 9th, he led another march, but as they got to the line of state troopers, King stopped and prayed, and then turned the marchers around. This became known as “Turn around Tuesday.” That evening, three white Unitarian ministers were attacked and beaten on the street by white segregationists. 06The Rev. James Reeb died of head injuries two days later. Again, King delivered a powerful eulogy for Reeb at the memorial service.

Between March 9 and March 21, King worked hard to get protection from the federal government for the marchers. Reeb’s death had shocked the nation in a way that Jackson’s had not, and so eventually President Johnson relented and provided the protection, which allowed the march to finally be successful.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama, Sasha Obama, Amelia Boynton Robinson, John LewisTwo weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an estimated 80,000 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama and his family were there, and he spoke at the event. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday,” he said, “our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

08There is a French proverb that says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. On the Friday before the commemorative march, Tony T. Robinson Jr.,  an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot dead by a white police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking protests.

09Earlier this week, Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia student, was bloodied during an arrest near the campus. Johnson’s attorney relates that “Just before handcuffing him, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and causing him to bleed profusely from the gash on his head. ” The lawyer continued by listing the numerous leadership positions on campus that Johnson holds, ending his statement with “He has no criminal record.”

“He has no criminal record.” His lawyer had to share this with us, because time after time, for each story heard of a black man brutalized by police, white people sit around and look for excuses. “Oh, he was drinking” or “Oh, he had a criminal record” or “Oh, he was a drug addict.” because, apparently, these character flaws somehow make it okay for someone to be the victim of police brutality?

We see this in the death of Otis Byrd this week in Mississippi. He was found hanging by a tree, a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Some reports indicate that a skull cap was pulled over his head, and that there was nothing nearby for him to stand before taking a suicidal step forward. The FBI is investigating and should know more in the coming days whether this was a lynching or a suicide, but in the meantime every report the news has made has been sure to share that Byrd was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release. Because, I guess, if he was lynched, then this would make it less horrible???!!!

10Kenny Wiley is the director of Religious Education at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado, and a senior editor of the UU World magazine. Writing in response to Johnson’s experience earlier this week, Wiley wrote on his facebook wall:

Over time the illusions of black respectability I grew up believing–that if I was smart enough, nice enough, nonthreatening enough, that nothing could go wrong–has been shattered.

In general, that’s a good thing. I needed to wake up to the racial realities of the present. But I need to say publicly that all this violence hurts. It hurts to know that, if any violence ever happened to me, the first question some would ask is what I did to deserve it.

Listening to a podcast just yesterday, I heard a mother talking about how she is teaching her 5 year old son how to properly pronounce certain words because she wants people to know he is human. She wants people to know that he is human! I have never, ever, not once had to worry about whether my children would be considered human. And I am betting that neither have most of you. But mothers of black sons do. Constantly.

The black experience in the United States may be better than it was 50 years ago, but it is still an extreme experience. The recent Department of Justice report on the situation in Ferguson, 11MO, where Michael Brown was killed in August, illustrates this numerically. With a population of only 21,000, 16,000 in people in Ferguson had outstanding arrest warrants. This means over ¾ of the population were wanted by police! 12Though African Americans represent only 66% of the population, police used force in their arrests much more often than in the case of other races. 85% of the people subject to a vehicle stop were African American, and 93% of all people arrested in Ferguson we African-American! Ferguson issued 9000 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 2.3 citizens. For comparison purposes, Boston, with a population of over half a million, only issued 2,300 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 280 citizens.
Now we can say that Ferguson is an anomoly, but with over 19,000 municipal governments in our country, “the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim.

We know that it is not just police brutality from which blacks disproportionately suffer:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • One in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as Next bullet whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)!!
  • Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.

In The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, Michelle Alexander says:

If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm.

Enter the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM-text-logo1-1024x116Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter, racially unjust events are being dragged from the shadows into the light of public scrutiny. Originally started as a twitter hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement “was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime… Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist [their] de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”

Today, Black Lives Matter is an organized movement “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” They ask those of us who are non-black to stand with them in solidarity.

I know some of you have trouble with Black Lives Matter. To you, I gently, but firmly remind you: This is not your movement. As white people, we are being asked to be allies to a powerful claiming of black humanness. We are not being asked to lead. We are not being asked to weigh in. We are being asked to listen, to show up, to walk, to stand shoulder to shoulder, and to speak out against injustice when we encounter it.

Because, in this country, we have proven time and time again that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Because Jimme Lee Jackson’s death was not enough to bring the world to Selma, but James Reeb’s was.

And so we protest against those who act like Trayvon Martin’s life didn’t matter because he was wearing a hoodie and “acting suspicious”,

We protest against those who act like Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter because he did not obey the police officer or because, heaven forbid, he was walking down the middle of a street,

We protest against those who act like Tamir Rice’s life didn’t matter because he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy in a playground (??!!)

We protest against those who act like a black life only matters if they have never committed a crime, speak well, are educated, and whatever other new bar gets set that denies their inherent worth and dignity.

We protest against all those who act like black lives don’t matter. We say no: All lives matter, and because of this, black lives matter, too. We make it explicit, so that there can be no confusion.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama jail and wrote a famous letter. He was not allowed pieces of paper, so we wrote it on scraps, on whatever he could find. A part of that letter reads:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

As white people, if we sit still and nitpick the name of perhaps the most important movement in our country right now, or, even worse, if we counter it by saying we should instead hang a banner that says “All lives matter” we become the white moderate over whom King lamented. We effectively would be paternalistically saying “We know better than you what you should name yourself.” We would be acting as white supremacists.

As white people, if we are not stepping up in white society to challenge racism and racial prejudice when we see it, we are, by defacto, agreeing with the status quo rather than challenging it and are aligning ourselves with white supremacists.

As white people, if we are waiting for Black people to tell us it is okay or to give us clear instructions, “The reality is, Black people have been calling on whites to step up for decades.” As Unitarian Universalist author of Towards Collective Liberation and recent White Privilege Conference speaker Chris Crass wrote recently on his facebook page: “In all my years of working alongside Black organizers and activists, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘we’ve got too many white people fighting racism’.”

This is why we have our new Black Lives Matter candle at First Unitarian Church.  This is why we are talking about replacing our “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” banner with a #BlackLivesMatter banner when the Supreme Court hopefully legalizes same-sex marriage this summer: Because it is, and will be, a symbol of our humility. Of our willingness to listen. Of our willingness to follow. Of our willingness to stand in solidarity. Of our willingness to speak out, and lend our bodies to the cause of justice.

Much has changed in fifty years, though much has remained the same.

In his concluding remarks two weeks ago at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama reminded us that what happened fifty years ago proved “that love and hope can conquer hate…that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals…We know the march is not yet over,” he said, “We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth…Fifty years…our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

Hard fought inch by hard fought inch, we are getting closer. It isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. In fact it is pretty messy. We will fall short in this work. We will fail at times. And we will break each others hearts over and over again. But we know that if we remain in the struggle, this is what enables us to grow. May we not have to wait another 50 years to get to the glory.


15 Mar

A twist on a twist on an old Zen Buddhist story…

One day, as a mother and her teenaged son were traveling through the countryside, they came to a river where the bridge had washed out. There they found an old woman, restlessly pacing the bank.


“Good day, madam!” the son called out. “Do you need any help?”

“Yes!” the old woman replied impatiently. “The bridge has washed out and I am needed immediately on the other side.”

“I am familiar with this river,” the mother shared. “It is not more than chest deep at the deepest spot. Perhaps my son and I can carry you across.”

“Well, lets hurry up and get on with it then!” the old woman said.

And so the mother and son decided that the son would start with carrying the old woman’s things and the mother would give the old woman a piggy-back ride across the river. They got the old woman onto the mother’s back and set across the river.

The water was cool but the current was not too swift as the threesome crossed. However, as they got towards the middle, the old woman shrieked out “My feet are getting wet! Carry me higher! My feet are getting wet!”

So there in the middle of the river, the son and the mother put the old woman upon his shoulders. But the old woman wasn’t stable there, so the mother had to brace and support her from the back. They continued on.

The old woman squirmed and squirmed, moaning about her wet feet. As she squirmed, she broke wind*, loudly and quite stinkily, into the mother’s face and the son’s neck.

Finally, they arrived at the other side of the river. The mother and son put the old woman down.

“About time!” she exclaimed as she grabbed her things, and she stomped off down the road without a backward glance.

The mother and son were glad that they were traveling in the opposite direction, and they continued upon their journey.

Before long, the son could not keep it in any longer. “The nerve of that old woman! She treated us like cattle, and then without even a ‘thank you’! I can’t believe how rude some people are.”

The mother nodded and agreed that the woman had been something.

As they continued, the son brought the old woman up again, and again. Each time, his blood pressure rose and he got more and more angry. His mother, however, didn’t seem to bothered by the experience at all. Finally, he couldn’t stand her lack of concern. “It was YOUR face she tooted* into! How can you be so nonchalant?” he demanded.

“Dear son, I forgave the old woman and put her down miles ago. You seem to still be carrying her.”


* When this was originally posted, it included the word “fart” in place of these euphemisms. However, it was quickly pointed out to me that for some people, that word is the “f-word” that should take its place with the other seven dirty words. I had no idea!   In my family, growing up and today, the word “fart” is as innocuous as its gas passing cousin “burp”.  However, in deference to those who find the word “fart” to be highly offensive, I have edited the story while maintaining, I believe, the impact. 

systemic evil.

26 Feb

Systemic Evil
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered online on February 22, 2015

Video didn’t work out as hoped for for this sermon. Sorry!

When I was preparing to visit Charleston, South Carolina a few months ago, I posted on facebook and asked what recommendations people had for places to visit or things to do there. Along with some fantastic restaurant suggestions, one of my colleagues recommended a popular plantation, but also said that she had found it “very disturbing.” Feeling like I had a pretty good handle on what she meant, my traveling companion and I made plans to go. In fact, on the same day, we visited two plantations: one right down the road from the other. The differences were profound, and I learned firsthand what my colleague found disturbing – it was not the history of slavery that was so disturbing, but the way that they talked about it in the present.

The other plantation, the one right down the road, passed through many generations of family ownership before being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark operated by a preservation trust. The tour of the plantation house started in the basement, where the enslaved people worked. The guide constantly referred to “enslaved people” rather than slaves. This language humanizes those who were kept in slavery, and it suggests that someone was doing the enslaving.

On the tour, we learned about an enslaved woman who had been written about in one of the early owners diaries. The guide pointed out where she would have worked until the day she died. He didn’t whitewash the history – “the only freedom she experienced was in death” he told us. Throughout the rest of the tour, the guide talked about how the enslaved people would have worked in each room of the house – how they would have brought in furniture, set up tables, used the small, hidden stairway to bring food & chamberpots up and down. The enslaved people were present in each room.

Contrast that with the recommended plantation, which, though it is open as a public garden, is still owned and operated by descendants of the the original owners. The tour we took was to the slave cabins that are onsite – one cabin each from 5 different time periods. The guide was very friendly as she talked about the conditions the slaves worked in, and the unique task work system they operated under, and about how former slaves still lived worked on the plantation even after being set free from slavery. She talked about Mr. Johnny, who was born and raised on the plantation, and both he and his children still work there.

My companion and I felt odd. It was not that she was patronizing, and not that she was condescending – we got the feeling she really liked Mr. Johnny and his family who worked there. It was almost as if she were using Mr. Johnny’s story to prove that the white slave owners weren’t so bad after all. This approach is echoed on the plantation’s website, where it says that on this tour, visitors “will experience an engaging and interactive discussion of the dynamic issues that shape this delicate inquiry…This arc of history conveys the tumultuous times continuously challenging African-American families….” On their website and on the tour, there was little about who might have been responsible for the continuous challenges – as if it had been a spate of bad luck that African-American families fell under. There was no ownership of the history of oppression.

This, I realized, is why my colleague found this plantation disturbing. It was not the history of slavery that was so problematic, but the way they treat that history in the present. We had bumped right up against ongoing, systemic evil.

Now, I am not saying the guide was evil, or that the owners of this plantation are evil or that any individual associated with it is evil. Instead, I am talking about a systemic evil, which is also called group or institutional evil. And that is the theme of this sermon today. I am going to explain what it is in more depth, and then discuss ways that we, as individuals contribute to systemic evil, and then share ways that we can counter it.

2015-02-22-OoSIn his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil M. Scott Peck writes that “ the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.” With this definition, either individuals or groups can commit evil acts.

I was first introduced to the concept of group, or systemic evil, by theologian Walter Wink when I was in seminary. In his book Powers that Be, Wink points out that “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control.” Wink says that these systems of domination are “characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”

Let me take a minute to unpack that, because there is so much there. Wink is saying that where we see these characteristics, we see systemic evil at work. So when we see unjust economic relations, such as gap between CEOs and workers, where CEOs make over 300 times what the average worker makes, then we can point and say that systemic evil is present there.

When we hear about voter suppression laws, we know that oppressive political relations are at work, which indicates systemic evil is present.

When we look at how differently the police treat black men than they do white men, we see evidence of biased race relations and know that systemic evil is present.

When women are oppressed and told that they are a “lesser cut of meat” these are not only the words of one state congressman, they are a symptom of patriarchal gender relations – a sign that systemic evil is present.

And it goes on. Though Wink did not explicitly mention oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity, we know that systemic evil is at work there, as well. Wherever there are systems of domination over which no single individual has control, we have systemic evil.
But even though one person may not have control over systemic evil, individuals obviously do contribute to it. We see this clearly in Hannah Arandt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she introduces the the expression and concept “the banality of evil”. Otto Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. After the war, he was captured and brought to “Israel to stand trial on 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. Found guilty on many of these charges, he was sentenced to death by hanging and executed on 31 May 1962.

Reporting on the trial for the New Yorker, and then writing a book about it, Arandt suggested that Eichmann was neither “a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.” (wikipedia)

Both Arandt and Peck indicate that two factors allow systemic evil to take hold: selfishness and ignorance. This combination creates in us the narrow-mindedness that allows us to deny, to not see, our connection to others. For many of us, unless we are being directly effected by systemic evil at the moment, it is easier to focus on our own lives and on our own individual struggles to get by. We are like horses with blinders on so that the evils of the world around us do not distract us from plodding forward along the path. Meanwhile, we don’t see the oppression, death, and devastation that is happening just feet away. Those of us with the privilege of having such blinders are not outraged, because we are not paying attention.

If we take our blinders off, we are often immediately overwhelmed with the evil that is all around us and over which we feel powerless. And so we put our blinders back on, and we become inured to it. Evil becomes normalized. We accept, for years, the war on drugs that unjustly targets african americans even though blacks and whites use and sell drugs at the same rate. We accept that the media continues to use the wrong gender pronouns for transgender people, such as referring to the recent murder of a 22 year old transgender woman by her father as a “man who was charged with stabbing his 22-year-old son to death.” We participate in systemic evil if we have other options, yet continue to shop at Walmart, knowing that they make enormous profits and yet continue to pay their employees a pittance (even with the raises they announced last week). We do it when continue to buy pop music because it is catchy and easy to dance to, even though it tells women “you know you want it” indicating that consent is really just about “blurred lines”. Or when we go about our limitless consumption mindlessly ignoring the damage we are doing to our planet. These are all ways in which we participate, daily, in systemic evil. And there are so many more.
I hope you are squirming a bit right now. You probably should be. I know I am! As Peck points out, whenever

“it becomes possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group [evil occurs]. In this way, not only does the individual forsake [their] conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent…The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain … evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group.”

And therein lies our salvation: holding ourselves directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group. But that is easier said than done. How can we hold ourselves accountable for this systemic evil that is so much bigger than any us? By holding ourselves accountable, I don’t mean that we have to take the total blame for it. I mean recognizing ways we perpetuate the systemic evil, and seeking to stop doing so when we can. I mean taking off the blinders, allowing our hearts to break and our spirits to become outraged. For example, the plantation that talked about the enslaved people took ownership and held itself accountable to the history of slavery it perpetuated. The one that considered it a “delicate inquiry” did not.

I want to offer three concrete ways that we can, as individuals, seek to neutralize evil and hold ourselves accountable. The first is by educating ourselves. Peck says that “The task of preventing group evil – including war itself – is clearly the task of eradicating or, at least, significantly diminishing [intellectual] laziness and narcissism…The effort to prevent group evil…must therefore be directed at the individual. It is, of course, a process of education.”

This might look like educating ourselves about the history of discrimination and oppression perpetrated by our justice system upon people of color so that when an incident of police brutality against a person of color occurs, we are able to understand the event in the larger context. It might look like educating ourselves as to the different Muslim sects so that we are able to affirm a peaceful people while at the same time condemning fundamentalists of all types. Educating ourselves so that we might prevent or eradicate systemic evil might look like learning about the complexities of gender identity so that we we can write to educate the KY state senator who sponsored the infamous bathroom bully bill, who clearly does not understand such complexities himself.

But while we engage in education, we do not want to emulate those who seek to oppress or continue the systemic evil; we don’t want to contribute to the evil – no eye for an eye. Wink tells us that “Evil can be opposed without being mirrored. Oppressors can be resisted without being emulated. Enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.” This leads to the second way we can address systemic evil in our lives: to engage our sense of wonder and curiosity. Wink points out that “Provoking a sense of wonder…tends to defuse hostility. It seems to be nearly impossible for the human psyche to be in a state of wonder and a state of cruelty at the same time.” We can ask questions – of ourselves, and of those around us. We can ask the Texas Attorney General who is seeking to overturn Friday’s first, and only, same-sex marriage in Texas, how he might feel if one of the women involved were his sister, or his daughter. We can write a quick email to a columnist who refers to a trans person with the wrong pronoun educating them on the issue. We can wonder aloud to our legislators what will happen to our children, or our grandparents, if food stamps, or social security benefits are cut, or if bus service to the poor part of town is reduced. And even if we cannot change it, we can pay attention and wonder about the ways that we benefit from unearned privilege, either from our race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic class, education level, or more. In these ways, we are able to take responsibility for our participation in systemic evil and decrease our unintentional participation.

Of course, we can’t spend every waking minute engaged in this pursuit, and there is a lot of systemic evil around us. So the final, but most important step, is to more frequently take off our blinders and pay attention. Allow ourselves to see things for the way they are. When we do, I believe our empathy cannot help but be engaged, and when our empathy is engaged, we will act in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of individuals as well as honoring our place in the interdependent web. Such a hope can be found in the story of Annelie Keil, as told by the Rev. Victoria Safford8, which I want to end with today. Safford shares:

A woman writes about her long ago life as a child in World War II. She was six years old, a German child in a Russian prison camp. She tried one day to steal food and was caught by a Russian officer. He grabbed her arm roughly, and then, she says, “looking into my frightened eyes, he recognized the longing and anxiety of his own little daughter who together with [the rest of his family] was killed near Leningrad by the Germans. He started to cry, and as he smiled at me through his tears, we joined hands. Two homeless people, without any words, decided to take care of each other, to be father and daughter. This lasted for nearly two years, the only time in my life that I ever had a father…I began to learn then that life in its fullest sense can exist only when the appropriate conditions for living are provided… life is an invitation, a challenge to take the next step into the darkness of uncertainty and creativity. A decision must be constantly made to make life possible,” a decision you make only partly for yourself and in large part for others. That, [Safford says] to me, is an interesting idea about how good exists in this world: as a series of tiny human decisions, sometimes premeditated, but sometimes seemingly spontaneous – these very small choices to make life possible. He grabbed her arm, then he took her hand.

Systemic evil can be found wherever there are systems of domination and oppression that seek to suppress life. We participate in them daily, we benefit from them. But there is a degree to which we can choose not to. We can choose to remove our blinders, be curious, and to educate ourselves. May we chose to promote life and liveliness, and whenever we realize it, wherever we can, cease our participation in systemic evil. May it be so. Blessed be.

bridging eras.

19 Feb

Bridging Eras
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on February 15, 2015

Listen here:


Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel


Bonner Bridge

Arthur Ravenel Suspension Bridge

Rope Bridge to King Kong Zipline

Rope Bridge to Zipline



I have been thinking about bridges quite a bit recently.  Traveling to visit my in-laws, I crossed over the Bonner Bridge which connects Hatteras Island to the North Carolina mainland, as well as the Chesapeake Bay bridge and tunnel. When I was in South Carolina in December, I saw the beautiful Ravenel suspension bridge. And last summer, while doing a zip-lining course, I had the opportunity to  walk up a rope bridge before zipping down 1200 feet.

That will get your heart pumping!

Rope bridges, suspension bridges, truss, draw, lift, and so many more. Bridges are built in a variety of ways, but no matter what type of bridge we are talking about, the purpose of the bridge is always the same: to connect two places in a traversable manner. By their nature, bridges are liminal spaces – we cross the threshold of one place, journey across the bridge, and then enter a new space.

Metaphorically speaking, religious institutions are on a bridge right now. We are in transition. The previous era is behind us – the old ways of doing church, with worship being the central function (sometimes the only function!) and  committees populated by volunteers doing the brunt of the church work. We know those old ways aren’t working very well anymore – people are busier than they have ever been, there are fewer families with only one spouse employed leaving the other the freedom to be a professional volunteer, there are fewer people going to church than ever before (fewer than 20% of the US population on any given Sunday), and there as been a rise of what are called the “nones” – the people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. We have left behind the old era and have stepped onto this bridge on our way to a new era, a new way of doing church. And that can be scary, indeed. Especially since we are not quite sure what it will look like. Some might fear doom and destruction – that the bridge will collapse or that we never should have stepped on it to begin with. Others might dream about the utopia that is waiting for us. Likely, it is something in between.

The problem with this bridge metaphor is that it leaves us just plodding forward, expecting the deck of the bridge to magically appear and rise to meet our feet as we cross. We have no responsibility, and can be totally passive. So perhaps instead of a metaphor of merely crossing a bridge, we should consider that we are building it, from one era to another. And so we have an opportunity to not just dream or dread the future, but to design it. To intentionally work to build this bridge to the future that we envision.

bridge-to-nowhereBut where to start when building this bridge? The first step is to attach one end to the ground. Wherever we go, we will have this connection to the previous era, anchoring us to the past. Though they are no longer suitable for the world in which we live today, the old ways served us well for many a generation. Then, as we design and build the span, it is important to take into consideration the elements of the terrain we will be going over. Are we crossing water, or a valley? Is the bedrock stable or shifting? How far will we have to go? As we survey the religious landscape, there are four specific changing characteristics of traditional brick and mortar congregations like this one that I would like to address this morning.

The first characteristic of the surrounding terrain I see are the changing expectations around worship.  In a world where people can easily find exhilarating TED talks, stirring UpWorthy videos, and so much more, people are not coming to worship to learn as much as they come to experience.

People of different professions around the worldPeople come to experience in community  something that we cannot get by ourselves – whether it is joy of joining together in communal song, or the shared experience of reflecting on an inspiring sermon, or to struggle to understand how we should live knowing that we all will die – whatever the reason, we come to experience something we cannot get by ourselves. If a church is delivering uninspired lectures, no matter how excellently crafted, but not giving the shared experience people crave, then their spiritual needs are not being met.

To prepare effective worship that meets today’s needs, it is important pay attention to multiple styles of learning, knowing we are going to attempt to minister to someone who is walking in the door for the first time as well as to someone who has been coming here for the whole of her 90 years. We try to meet the needs of the person who has never sung a song communally before and really likes popular music, as well as the person who thirsts for more traditional hymnody. A challenge arises in congregations like this one: With only one worship service a week, creating an experience that can touch such diverse varieties of people is difficult. This is why so many congregations have added a contemporary or innovative worship service to their offerings – to try to meet the needs of a greater variety of people. The Faith Communities Today study from 2010 indicated that having innovative worship is a marker of spiritual vitality in a congregation because it removes barriers to participation. But in 2010 only 3% of our Unitarian Universalist congregations reported having such a service!

There is another reason congregations are diversifying their worship portfolio- not only can a congregation offer different types of services, but they can offer them at different times of the week and through various formats. This diversification of worship allows the church to touch more lives effectively, which leads us to the second change in the terrain around us that we must take into consideration as we design and build our bridge to the new era.

The Old Way

The Old Way

There is a changing tide of looking at how many members a congregation has to looking at how the congregation touches lives, both within the church and outside it. Up until now, there has been a stress on membership as the way to measure the health of a congregation. In this old model, the vast majority of the congregation would worship together on Sunday morning. After a certain amount of time, visitors would become members, and then they would be invited to participate in the structure of the church by joining one committee or another. If someone came into the church via one of the ministry groups, such as a book-group or a CUUPS group or a meditation group, they would be encouraged to come to worship and eventually join. People who did not participate in the communal worship of the church frustrated leaders who wanted these people to “count” by joining as members and helping to support the church through their volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

The New Way

The New Way

The new model for the future turns this old way on its head. Instead of a pathway to membership, there is a focus on multiple avenues of participation. Perhaps someone wants Religious Exploration for their children, or they are interested in the book club. Or they want to volunteer for the soup kitchen or they turn out for the public witness march. These are people who may be involved in the church in several different ways but who may only rarely (if ever) darken the door at Sunday morning worship.

Until now, we would try to get these folks to come to worship, with the goal being to get on that pathway to membership. Today, we recognize that these ways of participating are valid and valuable as the church can (and should!) touch lives outside of worship. This new focus on multiple avenues of participation has an impact on how we do things. Faith development cannot only happen in worship, it must happen at the group level as well, whether that group is the soup-kitchen servers, the book group, an RE class, or beyond. Stewardship is the same – you can’t just hit up the people who are in worship. Congregations are removing barriers to participation by considering folks who engage in these other avenues and groups as community members because they are, whether or not they participate in worship. Besides, they may have very good reasons for not attending on Sunday morning. For instance, they may have to work!

technology2Which leads to the third change in terrain as we design and build our bridge from the old era to the new: technology. Congregations are beginning to utilize technology in a variety of ways, from streaming services to having welcome videos on their websites, to projecting video, presentations, having google hangouts in the service, and more, during the service. But integrating technology into the life of a congregation is not limited to Sunday mornings, it can also be a way to remove barriers to participation. Video conferencing can be used for meetings so that people who have difficulty driving at night, or have children at home they need to be with, can participate from the comfort of their own home. Having a podcast or video-cast of the service allows people to access it whenever it works for their schedule.

It was not that long ago that congregations could get by without even having a website, but that is absolutely not the case anymore. And a website is just the beginning. Congregations not only need to be on social media, they need to know how to use it. Over 600 people have “liked” the First Unitarian facebook page – that is more than 3x our membership number and 6x the number of people we get on Sunday morning. Another 50 people are following the church twitter feed. These are people whose lives this congregation touches in some capacity. On social media, information is processed differently than it is in print, or even in email. Chunks of data have to be smaller, more discrete. They have to grab the viewer immediately with relevant details in case they don’t read past the first sentence. This necessitates a shift in how we share information, as we maintain the old era ways of the newsletter and printed orders of service while moving to the new era ways of using social media.

Congregations can also use technology to see what people are interested in at the church or how people are finding the church. Using customer relationship management software like Constant Contact to distribute our newsletter and then tracking which links get clicked on and which don’t would allow us to see who is reading the newsletter and what parts of it people are most interested in. Google analytics can track what search terms bring up a congregation’s website, as well as where the majority of the clicks come from. For instance, from this data I learned last night that our website was clicked on more often by people looking for Pagan communities in Louisville than from any other online search! Google analytics can also track demographic and geographic data of people visiting a website, as well as the total amount of time between clicks, which can give you a sense of whether or not they are reading what is on the website. This is all important data that can then be used when deciding what to promote, as well as how and where to spend advertising or marketing money.

money-tree-images-Image-Money-Tree-IllustrationAhh yes. Money. At this point, many of you are probably wondering how on earth we are supposed to do all these things. Not surprising, financing is another area in which the terrain between the old era and the new era is shifting and which we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge. With the economic downturn finally resolving, congregations are often still struggling to make ends meet. I know many of you are tired of hearing our pleas week after week that our finances are not enough to keep up with not only the promises we have made in the present, but also our vision for the future.

Some congregations have instituted a fee for service payment method, where services are broken down and participants pay for them separately. This might look like having fees to participate in RE classes, book groups, CUUPS rituals, possibly even worship. The trouble with this method is that it puts up barriers to participation instead of removing them. Instead, I believe it is time for congregations to get creative.

One way congregations can remove barriers to participation around money is to utilize technology more effectively. This might look like enabling online donations during the service, either though a website or through a hardware technology solution such as the Square.

Though we will still rely on your annual pledge as the primary means of supporting First Unitarian, I also believe we will begin to see more congregations applying for grants. There are thousands upon thousands of dollars available out there that congregations could be plugging into: from making our building more accessible to funding an OWL coordinator, to a variety of social service and social justice projects that congregations could be taking advantage of. These grants are available from local organizations, state and national organizations, and, if a congregation has been a UUA Fair Share Congregation for two years (and we were last year, so we are so close!), from regional chalice lighter grants or from Veatch grants from the Shelter Rock congregation. Grant applications are particularly appealing to deciding bodies when congregations partner with other area organizations, including other local congregations.

sharingWhich leads to another way to do more with less: sharing resources with other congregations. It may be that we could share a membership director staff position with Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church down the road, or we could share a bookkeeper with the Bloomington congregation. Not only does this help lighten the load on an individual congregation, it creates jobs that are more likely to provide both benefits and a livable wage – making the position more appealing to a larger array of candidates!  We can share resources with other congregations!

Worship, multiple avenues of participation, technology, and financing – these are just 4 aspects of the changing terrain that we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge between the eras. And underpinning it all is a practical theological exercise. Did you notice it? There is a phrase that I repeated in each of these areas: “removing barriers to participation.” removing barriers

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We accept one another and encourage each other on our spiritual journeys. These two statements combined mean that we strive to meet people where they are. Not where we wish they would be, not where we think they should be. It means meeting people in the lived reality of where they are.

The more we understand this, the more we realize that it is our calling to confront and seek to do away with whatever it is that prevents people from feeling as though they have a place at the table. This means intentionally looking at what accommodations a congregation can make to remove barriers to participation for all those who might find a home with us, such as only offering worship on Sunday morning (a time when many people have to work), removing a barrier such as not amplifying sound during worship, or such has having manually powered doors that are not wide enough for a scooter to get through. It means taking down barriers so that parents feel welcome to bring their child with autism who gets overwhelmed easily by providing a quiet place for the child to calm down when overstimulated. It means having toddler seats in addition to high chairs so that people with toddlers feel welcome to stay for lunch, and it means explaining what is going on throughout the service for those who are new or who cannot read the order of service. Though we cannot, and should not, try to be all things to all people, through being intentional about our worship, through providing multiple avenues for participation, through the use of technology, and through thinking creatively about finances, congregations can remove barriers to participation and thus walk the talk on our core values.

lastBridgeBridges connect one space to another, traversing a changing terrain. Our theological values provide the decking of this bridge that we are designing and building and traveling. Our values connect us to the old era, anchoring us in history and tradition, and will see us through to the new. Though the terrain may be unfamiliar, we trust that we will get to the other side together, and in the meantime, we design and build, travel and dream about what we might create together along the way. May it be so.

talking about death.

1 Feb

Death: We All Do It
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on February 1, 2015

Moment for All Ages

“The Dead Bird”, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip


Listen Here:

Isn’t it beautiful how the children took the dead bird into the woods so that they could bury it, have a funeral, sing to it and decorate and visit its grave? They cared for it so gently, so lovingly. I suspect most of us would appreciate that type of loving care when it comes our time to die. And yet, so many of us don’t talk to our friends and family about what that type of loving care might actually look like. Surveys indicate that while 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important” to them, a full 56% of us have not communicated our end-of-life wishes to those friends and family whom we don’t want to overburden.

And yet, we know we’re going to die. Each and every one of us. Sooner, or later. Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, writes “The great triumph (or horrible tragedy, depending on how you look at it) of being human is that our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to understand our mortality. We are, sadly, self-aware creatures. Even if we move through the day finding creative ways to deny our mortality, no matter how powerful, loved, or special we may feel, we know we are ultimately doomed to both death and decay. This is a mental burden shared by precious few other species on Earth.”

Death. It happens to all of us.

Oh, but we’re in such denial about it! And this culture of “death denial” takes many forms. We get uncomfortable talking about our values and wishes for our death around our loved ones. I would bet that a number of you are squirming in your seats even now. Some of us superstitiously feel like talking about might make it happen sooner. We obsess about youth and looking youthful – as if young looking people are immune to death, though we know they are not. We use so many euphemisms to talk about death: we say that someone has passed, crossed over, departed, bought the farm, gone belly up, followed the light, is no longer with us. We embalm and make up the bodies of our loved ones who have died, hoping to make them look more alive, to keep us ever further away from death.

It was not always this way. The 1930’s saw a medicalization of death. Prior to this time, most people died at home. Even today, 70% of people say they would prefer to die at home, but that same percentage, 70% actually die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term care facility.

Prior to this era of medicalization, Doughty writes, “dying in a hospital was reserved for indigents, the people who had nothing and no one. Given the choice, a person wanted to die at home in their bed, surrounded by friends and family. As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 85% of Americans still died at home.” She says “Whereas before a religious leader might preside over a dying person and guide the family in grief, now it was doctors who attended to a patient’s final moments…Medical professionals deemed unfit for public consumption what death historian Phillipe Aries called the ‘nauseating spectacle’ of mortality…The hospital was a place where the dying could undergo the indignities of death without offending the sensibilities of the living.”

Now, in order to not offend our own or our loved ones sensibilities, we don’t talk about our own death, though we sometimes seem obsessed with the deaths of others. Only 7% of people report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor. But what is so baffling is that we want to have these types of conversations. Maybe only 7% have actually had them, but 80% of people say that if they were seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care.

So we want to have these conversations, with our doctors, with our families, with our friends. But we don’t. We don’t because, well, because they are difficult conversations to have! We’ve spent most of our lives pretending as though we would never die, so to have a conversation means that we have to acknowledge this reality, if only for a moment. And that can be scary.

What I want you to take away from today, however, is that as scary as having these conversations may be to some of you, they are often very reassuring. They put your mind, and your loved one’s minds, at ease. Listen to some of these testimonials:

I had many end of life conversations with my mother and they made me feel like her passing and death was complete. Nothing was left unsaid.


I grew up with the blessing of living near all four of my grandparents. As they grew aged, they moved in with our family…[On my grandfather’s last day of life, he] had spent hours outside planting a fig tree seedling with two of his grandsons. He enjoyed his dinner and went to bed. In the middle of the night, I heard him call out from his room next to mine. I went to him and turned on a lamp. “What is it, Grandpa?” “I’m cold,” he said, with a far away look in his eyes. I roused my mother…As we spread out a blanket to warm him, our eyes met with a knowing look. I woke my father, his son, and told him to go to Grandpa, that I thought he might be dying. Startled and afraid, my father said, “Call 9-1-1!” But I sat still on the edge of the bed and thought of my grandfather’s clear message over the years. “Dad, Grandpa is 94. He has had a good, long life. He told me he is not afraid to die…This is a good way to die. At home, with all of us around him.” We called Grandpa’s other two sons and the three men circled their father’s bed as he took his final breaths. My paternal grandfather died the way so many Americans say they wish to die: at home, peacefully, with loved ones surrounding them.


When my husband’s step-mother was diagnosed with brain cancer last February, we were all in crisis mode. She was confused and disoriented, and experiencing a lot of pain. Thankfully, we had engaged in conversations about end of life prior to this and my father in law felt as though he knew what her wishes were in a general sense. As steroids and chemotherapy shrunk the tumors, my mother in law regained her capacity to engage in meaningful conversation. We had many. We talked about treatment options and the potential outcomes of those treatments. We talked about what was important to her in terms of the goals she would hope to achieve in her life, and what her hopes were for her healthcare. Some days we talked about the coming months. Some days we talked about what the final days would look like. Many of these conversations were just between her and I, in quiet moments while chemotherapy drugs were dripping into her veins. Many others included her children and her husband. A few included her health care team – she was abundantly clear about certain aspects of her care and had specific wishes around intervention she would and would not be accepting of.

We revisited these specific wishes with each change in her health circumstances. And when her goals for her care changed, we were sure to communicate those goals to her health care team. Now, 11 months after diagnosis, we are near those final days. She is more confused now and it’s hard to know for sure what she does and does not understand. Yet, we continue to talk. This journey has been a difficult one. There is nothing easy about watching someone you love experience pain and distress. But the conversations we have had, and the confidence that we, as a family, feel in knowing her wishes for her final days, are a gift. A gift that she gave to us by being so open and courageous in speaking about her life and her death with us. We are sad. But we are not in distress. We are facing these days with her, advocating for her, and supporting her health care team in honoring her wishes.

What a gift it can be, to you and to your loved ones, to have these conversations, as uncomfortable as it may seem in the beginning. And, lest you younger folks be tuning out, these are not just conversations to have with older people, as these next stories demonstrate.

August 13, 1992 was the day of all heart break for myself and husband, well the whole family, really. Our 25 year old son was injured in an accident and lived on total life support for three and a half weeks. Then the decision was made to turn it off and just wait while he died. Oh there is much of this story I could tell you, but what I want to share is that now, all these years later, I realize …I had a responsibility. It should have been that even the younger family members were included in a conversation about the “what if’s” and what would you want done. Those decisions were upon our shoulders after our child was injured. It would have made a difference if only there had been some prior input. Don’t forget the younger ones.


My 28th birthday is coming up. As I inch closer to 30, my friends like to joke around that I’d better get ready to settle down. “When are you getting married? When will you buy a house? Isn’t it time for you to have children? It’s time to become an adult!” They’re kidding of course– none of those things are in the cards for me just yet.

While I may not be pregnant or in escrow yet, or even close, I can relax knowing that I’ve already made some very good adult decisions. At the age of 21, I made the decision to prepare an Advanced Directive to explain my wishes in the event of a catastrophic medical event. It was an odd move for someone my age, but my friends and family weren’t terribly surprised at my unconventional decision. I became interested in the study of death and dying while getting my Sociology degree in college. During college, I took a job on the Oncology floor of a hospital. During my time there, I experienced my first patient death, and many more after that. While we could anticipate the coming death of many patients, some patients declined suddenly, leaving the patient and family unprepared when the moment arrived. As I witnessed my first “hallway conversation” with the stunned family outside of the hospital room where their loved one was being resuscitated by the Code Blue team, I saw the decisions they had to make. Reflecting later, I wondered what I would do in their shoes…I knew I never wanted my parents or boyfriend to stand in the hallway and make that choice. It wasn’t easy, but I wrote out my wishes and sent a copy to my parents and my physician. It was hard for them to see, but I know they respected my decision…My generation has questions, but it’s hard to think about your own mortality in your twenties and thirties. In this transitional stage of life where we’re busy planning the rest of our lives, I believe this is an incredibly important conversation to have.

These stories, and there are many more as well, come from The Conversation Project – an organization dedicated to helping these end of life conversations to take place. “Too many people” they say, “are dying in a way they wouldn’t choose, and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain.” Their goal is to transform our culture so that we are able to have more open conversations about the kind of care we do and do not want for ourselves in our last days – not waiting to have them in the intensive care unit when it may be too late, but around the kitchen table while not under duress. The Conversation Project reminds us that having a conversation with friends or family about our values around our death isn’t really about dying, but about figuring out “how [we] want to live, till the very end.”

They have a “Starter Kit” for helping make progress in having these conversations. I will have copies of them available up here on the stage after the service, or you can go online and look at them – their website is They recommend that the place to start is by yourself, thinking about the things that are most important to you. What do you value most? What can you not imagine living without? Then finish this sentence: “What matters to me at the end of my life is _____.”

When you’re ready to have the conversation, first consider the basics. Who do you want to talk to? Who do you trust to speak for you? When would be a good time to talk? Where would you feel comfortable talking? What do you want to be sure to say?

The Conversation Project even gives some suggested ways that you might begin the conversation, because those first words are often the most difficult.

If starting with friends and loved ones feels too overwhelming, it might be easier to start with strangers. The Eiderdown restaurant in Germantown was recently the location of a “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death” event where people had dinner and, well, talked about death. One attendee shared that “it was reassuring to share a meal with others who care about the subject.”

Or you might want to go to a Death Cafe. Over coffee or tea and some light munchies, people talk about death – what it means to them, how they want it to go, what their experiences of it are, and so much more. You can find out when they are happening locally on their website:

And of course, as your minister, I am available to preside over the dying, guide a family in grief, and help you process your thoughts and wishes. We can talk alone, or with your friends or family, in whatever capacity works for you. If it is as the Rev. Forrest Church said, that “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die,” then it makes sense to talk to a religious professional about your thoughts, hopes, fears and beliefs about death and dying.

Every one of us will die, whether we are ready or not. It relieves a burden on our minds and hearts, and in the minds and hearts of our friends and family, when we can share our values around death and dying with them – when they know that they can honor our values in our last moments. Let us not participate in this culture of denial. There is a time to be born, and a time to die – and a time to talk about the death that we want for ourselves and our loved ones. May it be so. Blessed Be.

bragging, just a bit.

27 Jan

The congregation I serve is so cool. Here are some short videos they made about what they did, and how they did things, while I was on sabbatical. It almost makes me wish I had stuck around! I am so glad to be back with them now.

First Unitarian On The Loose
This video is about a group of adventurous people on an amazing journey exploring new ways of doing the same things while I was on sabbatical.

To Speak The Truth In Love
This video describes the way they worshiped together while I was gone.

Sharing Our Time, Talent And Treasure
And this video describes some of the ways they shared their time, talent and treasures.

Aren’t they amazing?


examining authority.

25 Jan

Examining Authority
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 25, 2015

Listen Here:

There are many perspectives from which we might examine authority. Our moment for all ages gave us two ways: positional or personal, and then Weber’s characteristics of legal, traditional, and charismatic. We could also look at where we find religious authority, or what we imbue with moral authority, or at our relationship with ministerial authority. But none of these are the kind of authority I want to address today. Instead, I want to focus on the intersection of authority with power and with leadership.

To do that, we’re going to start with a short video clip. If you’re of a certain age, then you probably can’t think about authority without being reminded of the image that is on our order of service. It is a boy named Cartman, from the TV show “South Park”. As you will see, Cartman has a thing about authority. There is some mild language and cartoon violence in this clip – it is South Park, after all – so if you’re easily offended or very gentle-hearted, you may want to step outside for one minute….No? Okay, let’s watch the clip.

There is nothing worse than Cartman with “authoritah”. How many of you have seen some of these excerpts before, or are familiar with the Cartman and authoritah meme? And how many of you maybe felt a little different about watching them today? Maybe you picked something up that you hadn’t before. Or maybe you felt a little uncomfortable – not just because we’re watching South Park in worship, but because in these clips, we see an abuse of authority that has eery similarities to real life – we might be finding what my kids call a “text to life connection”.

Authority, particularly police authority and other legal authorities, are under scrutiny these days. The curtain has been pulled back and those of us who were happily unaware cannot now turn back from the reality that some people who are in positions of authority, who are in positions where they are supposed to serve and help people – not all, but some – abuse their authority.

This is the type of authority I want to look at today, because as Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger said “Authority founded on injustice is never of long duration.”

So let’s start with the basics. What is authority? Authority is commonly defined as power that is given to some one in order for them to perform some function or service. Because it is part of an exchange, then if the conditions of the exchange are not met, the authority can be removed.

Some people grow up understanding that it is their choice whether or not to confer power – this leads these people to view authority figures more benevolently, knowing that they can retract the authority. Others however, grow up learning to fear authority.

Business leadership expert Ronald Heifetz says that

“People expect authorities to serve five basic social functions: 1) direction, 2) protection, 3) orientation to role and to place, 4) control of conflict, and 5) maintenance of norms.

People look to those in authority to maintain equilibrium and to provide direction. They expect this direction, not in the form of questions, but in the form of answers.

[People] expect those in authority to protect them from change and painful adjustments, from facing tradeoffs or gaps between the values they espouse and the reality that they live.

[People] expect those in authority to keep them oriented to their current roles and organizational relationships, rather than to generate disorientation. Yet if you want to make a substantial change, you often need a certain amount of disorientation.

People expect those in authority to control conflict. So people who are in authority often hesitate to see conflict as a source of creativity and as a necessary component in a process of adaptive change.

People expect those in authority to maintain norms.”

We can see all these expectations in our relationship with the police. We look to them to maintain safety – to follow the rule of law. They are not expected to examine each law and look for nuance. Those of us who are progressive or liberal may feel that people are ultimately good, and so we look to the police to handle those whose behaviors don’t fit our worldview. We expect them to reduce conflict rather than inspire it. And, not surprisingly, many police officers and jurisdictions are uncomfortable with the disorientation that can lead to creative cultural change.

These expectations of authority are not value judgements – they are not inherently good, or inherently bad. They just are – and they can go either way. Though we sometime resist authority, it is necessary. As Heifetz writes in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, “Social living depends on authority. Indeed our capacity to form authority relationships lies at the base of our organizations, from the family to the nation.”

However, it is important to to determine whether a relationship is a true authority relationship, or a dominance relationship. Dominance relationships, according to Heifetz, are coercive or are based on habitual deference. “All too often,” Heifetz says, “power is just taken, and deference to it indicates no authorization whatsoever. Yet over time, if people become accustomed to deferring to dominant individuals or institutions and develop a set of familiar habits and payoffs in exchange for their continued deference, then the act of deference begins to look like conference. Deference over time may become authorization, even without deliberate decision.”

If we realize we have become habituated to what is a dominance relationship, or if we realize our collective power to grant and retract authority, those with authority become vulnerable. And this is the case with many police forces right now. Those of us who are white are waking up to the dominance relationship that the police have exerted unjustly over black people – particularly black men. And those who are black are reclaiming their collective power.

It is exactly the type of creative conflict in which change is possible, but with which those in authority are most uncomfortable. Because, remember – authority is not leadership. Authority is tasked with maintaining the status quo, not challenging it. Challenging the status quo is the task of leadership. When an authority tries to show leadership, Heifetz says, it risks losing some of its legitimacy. This is why it is so hard for people in Weber’s category of legal authority to actually lead – how can you provide order and at the same time bring about the creative discomfort necessary for change?

Heifetz points out that

“If leadership were about telling people good news, if it were simply about giving people what they wanted, then it would just be easy, it would be a celebration. What makes leadership difficult, strategically challenging, and personally risky is that you are often in the business of telling people difficult news – news that, at least in the short term, appears to require a painful adjustment. You have to ask people to sustain a loss. It may be that the loss is only temporary and that the future will be even better. But in the current moment, when people are experiencing the pressure to change, those future possibilities are simply possibilities. What people know is that right now it hurts. And they resist that hurt.”

So leaders ask people to change which causes discomfort, authorities try to maintain order, and those in dominance relationships take power through coercion or habitual deferral. So why does all of this matter? It matters because it can give us a big picture view of what dynamics are at work in certain systems as we strive to live our fourth, fifth and sixth principles: to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and as we work for the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Let’s take the situation in New York as a brief example of what this examination process might look like.

This past July, Eric Garner, an African-American man, was killed in an illegal choke-hold by a New York police officer. I am going to assume most of you know the details. In December, a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer. The public was outraged.

Through this all, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed deep sorrow at Garner’s death, calling it a terrible tragedy. He issued a statement urging all parties involved to create a dialogue, and find a path “to heal the wounds from decades of mistrust and create a culture where the police department and the communities they protect respect each other.” When the grand jury decision came, de Blasio shared his disappointment. He then spoke about his son Dante, who is black. De Blasio said “I couldn’t help but immediately think what it would mean to me to lose Dante. Life would never be the same for me after…Chirlane [his wife] and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face…” De Blasio talked about wanting to keep his child safe “not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors…No family should have to go through what the Garner family went through.”

NYPD officers and their union took these comments as a sign of disrespect. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said the mayor’s comments were the equivalent of throwing the city police under a bus. Lynch continued by recommending that all parents, no matter their race or cultural heritage, should teach their children to respect police officers and to comply with police, “even if they think it’s unjust.”

Tensions were already high when, on December 20, two NYPD officers were shot in their police car by a man who posted on Instagram that he was doing it in retaliation for Garners death. As Mayor de Blasio walked through the hospital where the two officers had been pronounced dead, dozens of NYPD silently turned their backs on him for his perceived lack of support. This back-turning was then repeated by police at both officer’s funerals.

Meanwhile, after the officers were killed, police engaged in what was called an unofficial work stoppage. For the week of December 22, “citywide traffic tickets dropped 94% from the same period in 2013. Court summons for low-level offenses, like public intoxication, also dropped 94%. Parking tickets were down 92%. Overall arrests were down 66%.

This tactic, intended or not, may have backfired. It turns out that most people didn’t even notice the reduction in tickets and summons for smaller offenses, particularly as violent crime rates in NY continued to drop throughout 2014. Instead, many were grateful, as the tickets and summons that make up the bulk of police activity disproportionally affect those in the working class. Some people have been wondering if it is fair for the city coffers to be funded by such activity, especially as crime rates continue to drop.

Through this all, the Mayor refused to apologize for his comments and basically ignored the backs turned in his direction. His response was vindicated by recent polls that show that people are dismayed at the police tactics.

So that is the broad summary. Now let’s look at some of the authority, power and leadership dynamics at play. To do so, we will focus on relationships, particularly between the mayor and the police, and the police and the citizens.

The police and the mayor are both legitimate legal authorities by virtue of their positions. The Mayor, however, is also tasked with that delicate art of leadership – and so we see that there is bound to be conflict and discomfort – even pain – as he challenges the status quo while the police are tasked with maintaining it.

It is not surprising then, that the police resist the changes he proposes. Let me be clear that I am not talking about individual officers right here, but the NYPD as a system. As a system, the police are resistant to these changes the Mayor is urging. Heifetz reminds us

“Some resistance [to leadership] strategies are well known and rather obvious, such as scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, or killing off the leader in the hopes that if only we had the right leader our problems would be solved. But some organizations have more subtle mechanisms, such as reorganizing once again, denying the issue entirely, creating a decoy issue and so forth.” The NYPD seems to be employing many of these mechanisms in their resistance.

The police seem to believe that they have granted the mayor authority – given him power in exchange for some service. And, not getting it, they are trying to deny him authority. But this is not the exchange that occurred. The mayor does not get his authority and power from the police, but from the citizens. The Mayor has to answer to the citizens. As do the police. However, the police don’t seem realize that they are risking the authority that has been given to them by the citizens.

The relationship between the police and the citizens is rocky. While communities are generally willing to overlook much bad behavior on the part of their authorities, provided the authorities maintain their part of the exchange, there is growing discomfort at the force used by police in regards to black men. Additionally, Lynch’s comment that there would be no problems if people were just to obey the police, even if they think it is unjust turns the authority relationship on it’s tail! The police serve at the pleasure of the citizens – we give them power and direction – it is not the other way around. Indeed, one writer, Ben Domenech at the Federalist, calls the police actions a threat to democracy. “The NYPD needed to be reminded that [a] chain of command exists, and that they are not at the top of it..Instead, what New York City is experiencing now amounts to nothing less than open rebellion by the lone armed force.”

There is also a dominance relationship based on habitual deference that is at work and that is being challenged: when the police stopped writing so many summons, the citizens realized that the NYPD had gone beyond the social contract of given authority. As the people continue to wake up from this habitual deference, they threaten to revoke some of the authority of the police. Very few systems can gracefully accept a reduction of a power level to which they have become accustomed.

This means that there will likely continue to be conflict in New York as these power, authority and leadership relationships are worked out. Hopefully, it is the type of conflict that is a “necessary component in a process of adaptive change.”

Thomas Jefferson said that “All authority belongs to the people” and what the people have given, the people can take away. But it is not easy or comfortable. Heifetz says that “The transformation of either a dominance or a habitual authority relationship into a social contract is no small event. These are revolutions. Even the idea itself that such transformations can be achieved [signals] a major intellectual development.”

“You will respect my authority!” But that respect is only given to a point. There comes a time when authority relationships have to be renegotiated. Not tossed out – we need authority after all – but renegotiated. As the ones who confer legal authority, citizens have the right and responsibility to call for such a renegotiation. If we don’t like how the police, as a system, are functioning, we have the right and responsibility to reset their direction. It won’t be comfortable – change requires a certain amount of discomfort. And it doesn’t mean we should suddenly go about breaking laws or demonizing police officers. But it does mean claiming the power that we gave so that a certain service could be performed. Those we give authority to serve us, not the other way around. May it be so. Blessed be.

Race and Religion.

18 Jan

Race and Religion
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 18, 2015

Those of you who have been around First Unitarian for a while know that today represents a first for me here: the first time getting to preach on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Because I usually take January as a time of renewal and study leave, I have watched from afar as others fill the pulpit. But since my sabbatical ended at the beginning of January, this is the first time in my years here that I have had the pleasure of being around during this cold month, and thus the first time that I have the privilege of preaching on this auspicious day.

And what a year for it!

With the horror of the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless more black boys and men demanding that we pay attention, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With a fox news commentator lamenting how hard it is to tell if one is a terrorist if one is wearing a face-mask that hides their skin color, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With the contoversy around the movie Selma centering on the portrayal of a white man, and with that controversy derailing an amazing movie from being nominated for awards, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

When thousands chant “Je Suis Charlie” in response to the terrorist murders of17 people in France, and no such solidarity is shown for the hundreds killed by terrorists at a marketplace in Nigeria, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

And when some people respond to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by claiming that “All Lives Matter” , which is true but misses that black lives have always counted less than white lives in this country, that it is enshrined in our founding documents, and that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is about naming the lives that have not mattered as a corrective to this historical context, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

Nope, no we don’t. We do not live in a post-racial world. But how did it get this way? How do we live in a country, in a world, that has allowed continuing oppression based on the color of one’s skin? Why skin color? Why not something else, like height, or eye color, hair texture, or any of the other multiple random characteristics that distinguish human beings one from another?

Though the concept of race as simply a distinguishing characteristic goes back much further, our more modern view of race as a way of assigning value to a human being can be traced back to the time of Columbus, to a worldview and set of laws called the Doctrine of Discovery. Not only have these laws been used, and continue to be used to justify the conquest of land, it is in this doctrine that we find theological justification for the concept of race.

In 1493, after many an exciting adventure, Columbus returned to Europe and told people what he had found. The stories sparked visions of greed and expansion in the eyes of those in power. In order to increase the spread of the church, Pope Alexander VI declared that Catholic Kings had “natural law and right” to claim any lands not already claimed by another Christian monarch. Furthermore, the pope said that lands that were inhabited by non-Christians were to be considered as having been discovered when found by Christian explorers. This set of rules came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery.

In his paper We’ll Build a Land: The Invention of Race as a Tool of Empire, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino shares that “The Doctrine of Discovery was used to subjugate, enslave, and slaughter non-Europeans all over the globe in the name of Christianity, claiming the authority of God for monarchs hungry for empires to mine and exploit. The legacy of this Doctrine in the United States includes not only the lingering effects of centuries of slavery and the theft of a continent from Native Americans who became subject to campaigns of mass murder. The Doctrine of Discovery also became the legal justification for European monarchs—and their sovereign heirs in the United States, Canadian and Mexican governments—to draw borders by mutual agreement through the lands of indigenous peoples, and to enforce immigration restrictions on peoples who for thousands of years had freely roamed across those borders.”

But a problem arose with the doctrine, and that was that missionary priests had begun converting indigenous peoples to Christianity. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, this meant that the lands could not then be conquered. So a new category had to be created to continue to justify the conquest, genocide and enslavement of people. And so the concept of race evolved – skin color would be the means to classify who had worth and who did not.

On the white end of the spectrum were Europeans and those considered suitable for conversion to Christianity such as the Chinese and Japanese. In the middle of the spectrum, depending on what was wanted from them at the time, fell Indians from Asia and Native Americans. On the black end of the spectrum were those who were considered to be incapable of salvation through Christ – Africans, Muslims and Jews. Now, salvation is supposed to be available to all people, so by saying that Africans, Muslims and Jews were incapable of salvation, the church denied their very humanity.

In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings (as quoted by Tino) points out “While social or theological ‘otherness’ was not a new concept in the history of humanity…the power given to the category of ‘race,’ as defined along a black-white spectrum, was.” Before it was anything else, the concept of race “was a theological form—an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies.”

And because the core of the argument was theological in nature, it stuck in a way that few other types of laws would. Tino points out that “The stubborn persistence of the category of race in our society, despite the absence of any scientific or biological rationale for it, has everything to do with the lasting power of the original, theological, concept of race—and the power inherent in defining people as inferior in the eyes of God.”

We can trace the damage of this worldview all the way through to today. In their work to bring the issues of the Doctrine of Discovery to Unitarian Universalist congregations prior to the 2012 General Assembly held in Phoenix, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote: “For more than five centuries, the interpretive framework of the [Doctrine of Discovery] has been institutionalized and used to assert a presumed right of dominance over originally free and independent indigenous peoples. The [Doctrine of Discovery] was used by European nations to justify their conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. It was the justification–theological and political–for the appropriation of the lands and resources of indigenous peoples and efforts to dominate native nations and undermine the sovereignty of indigenous nations and peoples. Among other things, it formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.”

We are not able to fully tackle the racism in this country without addressing the religious arguments in which it was founded. Religious institutions must work towards dismantling the racist systems they helped create. It is necessary to say yes, black lives do matter. As Tino puts it “In order to work to reverse the damage wrought by centuries of misguided theology, it is necessary to decolonize our theology.”

This may sound like an enormous task. And in the face of this type of overwhelming work, it might be easy to sit and say to ourselves “Well, that wasn’t us. We are more enlightened than the people were back then.” And there is some truth to that. Certainly, as I was watching Selma the other day, I took pride in knowing that both the white civil rights workers who responded to King’s call and were subsequently murdered, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, I took pride in knowing that they were both Unitarians. And yet, at the same time, our faith tradition has consistently not supported African American ministers – the number of ministers of color is barely above what it was 30 years ago, even as the number of women ministers and gay and lesbian ministers has skyrocketed.

This paradox is found on a smaller scale here at First Unitarian, as well. On the one hand, we are were known as a white church that supported the civil rights movement. But the minister during that time, Rev. Robert Weston, installed his wife as a greeter because the other greeters were suggesting to black people who came that they might be looking for the church down the street.

The damage from the Doctrine of Discovery is built into our very fibers – it is in how our society is constructed and we are, necessarily, a product of that society. And so religious institutions, including our own, must work towards dismantling the racist systems we helped create.

So how do we do that? Where do we begin with dismantling these old, ingrained systems? The first and most important thing white churches, and white people, can do is listen with humility. Truly listen to the experiences of those who are oppressed, even, especially, when it clashes with our own experience or sense of the world. It is not uncommon for whites to think most everything is fine based on our own experience, even while we hear people of color reporting that their lives are filled with daily prejudices and discrimination. When we dismiss the stories of people of color as untrue or exaggerated because we haven’t had those experiences or because they seem so foreign to us, we devalue the lived realities of those with whom we hope to stand in solidarity! We must listen, and accept that our experience has not painted a big enough picture to encompass the experiences of all people.

Listening might sound easy, but oftentimes it is anything but because it challenges our bedrock assumptions of who we are and how things work. If we do not have close friends who are people of color, we must actively seek out stories. And when we hear or read them, we cannot look for reasons to dismiss them, we cannot look for reasons to distance ourselves from them.

How can we hold up James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo as martyrs to the cause of civil rights, and not have our hearts also broken because Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by a state trooper that same month? Do the deaths of white people mean more than the deaths of 12 year old Tamir Rice, shot and killed while playing with a fake gun on a playground? Or more than John Crawford, the young man shot and killed while shopping for a BB-gun in Walmart? If we listen, with humility, we realize it does not matter whether Mike Brown stole the box of cigars as some people still try to assert. Brown’s character is irrelevant – he does not have to pass a test of worthiness for us to take issue with the brutality of his death. He does not have to pass a test of worthiness for the citizens of Ferguson and beyond to take to the streets to protest the issue of constant over-policing, racial profiling and unfair and unjust treatment. These are policies that come out of our history of devaluing black lives, a history that traces itself back through racial profiling, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and slavery. Back to the Doctrine of Discovery and the invention of race to justify conquest and annihilation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dana McLean Greeley, and Homer Jack, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association Department of Social Concerns, at the 1966 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida. Dr. King delivered the Ware Lecture to this annual denominational assembly.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We must listen to these stories, and then we must ache for we know that we are connected to these victims, that we are connected to them just as surely as we are connected to one another in this room. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, in his 1966 Ware lecture, “a world perspective…This is the inter-related structure of all reality.”

Religious institutions have been part of the problem since the beginning, and we must be part of the solution. This is the best task of religion: to connect us to one another and to that which is greater than ourselves. It is religion, at its best, that makes me my brothers keeper.

Our faith tradition is bound up in this messy history, with moments of uplift intertwined with moments of degradation. But a church that stands for freedom must not be shackled by fear of losing privilege. A church that stands for justice cannot stand idly by while justice is denied to so many.

A church that stands for equity cannot be content when people are denied the tools and resources they need to achieve a basic standard of living.

A church that stands for compassion cannot be immune to those who bravely share their soul-wrenching stories of oppression.

A church that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person cannot stand by while white lives are continuously demonstrated as having more worth and dignity than the lives of people of color.

Instead, we must work towards dismantling the racist systems religious institutions helped create.

In this work, we will break each others hearts. We will fail more times than we can count. We will stick our feet into our mouths, be chagrined, embarrassed, and ashamed. But continue to work in spite of failure is what has and what will allow us to keep growing, to keep challenging the status quo, until such time as we truly honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, until such time as we can boldly claim that black lives do matter as a counter to years of being told otherwise. May this important work ennoble our lives, and may we not sleep through the revolution. Blessed be.

Sabbatical Epiphanies

15 Jan

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 11, 2015

Reading Excerpts from Turtle by Gayle Boss


“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.” This wisdom comes to us from the greek philosopher Heraclitus, around 2500 years ago. As old as it is, I am feeling it in a new way right at this moment. I am not the same minister that stood here six months ago, and you are not the same congregation. And yet here we are, with me putting my foot in the water once again, getting a gauge on the temperature, the current, the turbidity. And boy-howdy, this river did NOT stay still while I was gone. As I have heard over the past few days, and as many of you saw in the wonderful videos shared in the service last week, this congregation’s current carried it along at a healthy pace – not too fast and wild, but no chance of getting stagnant, either.

But I am getting ahead of myself, which I hope you will forgive since I am a bit out of practice at this. Since today is the first Sunday of Epiphany in the Christian tradition, it is fitting to share and celebrate our revelations with one another- particularly those of a spiritual nature. So I would like to begin by talking about my understanding of where I was six months ago, then share not only what I did on sabbatical, but what I learned, and then explore briefly about where we are now and what moving forward might look like.

There is a saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Not only because a busy person likely has issues saying “no” to things, but also because a busy person knows how to get things done. They are already moving sixty miles an hour, so bumping it up to 80 isn’t as difficult as it would be for someone who is cruising along at a more conservative 30.

But just as going faster in cars means fewer miles to the gallon and a shorter distance until it is necessary to refuel, so too do busy people need to be attentive to creating space and time for refueling. By the time June rolled around last year, my fuel tank was empty and I was running on fumes. My inner resources had been depleted to the point that my creativity was gone, my enthusiasm was gone, my ability to think outside the box was gone. I did what needed to be done, checked tasks off my to-do list, but experienced very little joy in it. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t exercising and taking care of my body. After five extremely satisfying, growth inducing, challenging, wonderful, thrilling years with this congregation, what was once a groove had turned into a rut. I had hit the point where I needed to refuel. And so it was that I took a deep breathe and swum deep, burying myself in the mud, like the turtle in our reading.

But going still does not come naturally to me, and so it took some time for me to figure out how to apply the breaks. I know some of you are wondering what I did on sabbatical, not just what I learned, so let me give you the scorecard, of sorts, to show you what I mean:

I traveled. In the course of the sabbatical, I traveled to the Arc of Appalachia Nature Sanctuary, to the Washington, DC area; Atlanta; Kingston, TN; Dayton, OH; Charleston, SC; and Des Moines, IA. That doesn’t include the family vacation we took prior to the sabbatical beginning!

I learned. About policy governance, about family systems and creative leadership, and about the history of race and racism in our society and in our congregations. I learned about cortisol, the stress hormone, and the damage that it does to our bodies and the damage that we then pass down genetically to the next generation. I learned about third places, endocannibinoides, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and about microaggressions. And I learned about the changing religious landscape in our country, and what it means for traditional brick & mortar congregations.

I wrote. I wrote 10 chapters in a book I am working on that takes my experience playing roller derby and uses it as a lens through which to look at various sociological, psychology and theological aspects of life. And I wrote 13 blog entries – many of them looking at how the way we “do” church needs to change as the old ways no longer work.

I ran. I have always hated running, but in early July I read something about how many runners hate running. Once I realized it was really a mind game, I decided to try it. Prior to sabbatical, I had never run anything more than a 5k in my entire life. In November, my sister and I ran a half marathon together – 13.1 miles.

And I focused on my family. We ate dinner together almost every night. I cooked healthy meals. Our eldest started a new school and we loved it so much we moved our youngest over a few weeks later. And we enjoyed this strange concept of weekends that I had heard so much about.

I traveled, learned, wrote, ran, and focused on my family. In the beginning of the sabbatical, I created a structure for myself. I wanted to write two chapters and a blog entry every week. And so that is what I started doing. I knew that I had a tendency to be addicted to my to-do list, but I learned that I have a tendency to be a slave to my goals, as well. When it comes to achievement of goals, I can be a force of nature. This has a good side, but as with most characteristics, it has a shadow side as well. By the time October rolled around, I was just as tired as I had been before I went on sabbatical! A dear friend said to me, in the way only dear friends really can “Good grief, Dawn! If you return to church and aren’t rested from your sabbatical, something is wrong.”

Her words went straight to my heart. So I put down the book, and the goal of writing each week. My new goal was to practice living a less structured life. To slow down. I began to practice slacking off – something I had not done for over 20 years.

It takes a lot of energy to go from 0 to 80 miles per hour, but I had been cruising along at 80 for a long time and so any slowdown felt strange. I learned that it takes quite a bit of energy to slow down – something that the engineers understood who created my hybrid vehicle, which recharges the battery whenever I break, but that I hadn’t quite gotten my head around. So it took time for me to learn how to slow down, to learn how to relax. As I did, the focus of my sabbatical shifted.

I began to read more. I read 17 novels in the last six months. For comparison sake, the previous year before that I had read about 3.

I nested. Without a million bajillion things hanging over my head, I was able to tackle little projects that called to me. I organized the pots and pans cupboard in the kitchen, and I organized the ubiquitous junk drawer. I weeded the back yard and painted and ran the electrical for a new home office space up in our attic.

And I rested. I resumed practicing guitar. I took up coloring mandalas. And I slept. A lot. I learned that my day goes so much better when I have time to just lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and think for 10-20 minutes before I am forced to get up.

Like the turtle, slowing down was my work, and deep within at the heart of my stillness, I trusted that one day the world would warm and my energy stores would be refilled and that I would be able to return to ministry. And so it became. It wasn’t my writing or my learning that refueled me, but the radical simplicity of rest.

I stand before you here today, rested, rejuvenated, excited to be here. I have already seen the shift within myself – I am once again able to think creatively, outside the box. I have energy around planning and preparing worship. I have hopes, ideas. And more patience. And deeper compassion.

So now what? Do we just go back to the way things were before the sabbatical? I don’t want that, and I don’t think you do either since you have learned and grown during this time as well. So how do we navigate this new territory?

John Cummins, who served First Universalist Church in Minneapolis for 23 years, spoke to several of us seminary students years ago. He shared with us students (who could never imagine serving a church for 5 years, much less 23!) that over the course of his time at First Universalist, he served not one church, but several. And that he was not one minister that whole time, but several. There is much wisdom in this understanding.

Six years ago, I had my first interview with the search committee here and I fell in love with this congregation. I came as an idealistic new minister, still a bit green around the edges. You were looking for someone to help you out of a difficult time – for over a decade the congregation had been in conflict and transition. You needed someone to love you to pieces and that was absolutely something I was prepared to do.

Over those first years together, we worked out a system to our relationship. I think it was a system that was necessary to get us through one crisis after another, one fire to fight after another, but it was not a sustainable system. It burned me out and left you lacking confidence in your own ministry.

And so it is time to together again to begin a new chapter in our shared adventure. I come to you today as a different minister than I was 6 months ago. Calmer. More grounded. I have a greater understanding of how I use goals and busy-ness to distract me from the real, difficult work of reflection and contemplation. And I come with an appreciation and desire to continue to do “big picture” systems thinking. You are more confidant in your own abilities to handle details, to put together inspiring worship, to take care of yourselves and one another. We get to start over, taking the best of what we had and writing a new chapter together.

Truth be told, it probably won’t be easy, as happy as we are to be back together again. There will be bumps in the road. If we don’t want to resume our old ways, it will take intentionality and work. For instance, I know I have a habit of picking up details I shouldn’t. I would appreciate your help as you continue to handle details, and your help in calling me on it when I try to do what is yours to do.

It is exciting, and maybe a little nerve-wracking, as we renegotiate our relationship. My colleagues have shared with me that returning from sabbatical is often more difficult for the minister and for the congregation than the sabbatical was itself! Some of you might want me to pick up where I left off, with a massive to-do list and I won’t be doing that. My job right now is not to jump right in and start all these new programs or take on any work that has been waiting for me. My job is to reconnect with you, to listen to your experience, your learning, your hopes and your dreams. Your job is to keep doing your vital ministry, and to formalize all the amazing vision that is here into a plan that will give insight in how best to prioritize our time together. Our job together is to build a new relationship, taking what we like from the old as we find a new balance that incorporates all the epiphanies we have had and that will take us to that new place where we can live our mission more fully.

What a gift a sabbatical is – for a minister and also for a congregation. We reunite now, re-joined in common pursuit of our mission to one another and to our world. We bow and bend towards one another, because we know that this is a relationship that is full of love and delight. It is a pleasure to be back with you. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring!!!


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