all in it together.

30 Oct

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
October 18. 2015


RollerDerbyI used to play competitive roller derby. And I’ve found it to be a useful lens through which to examine sociological, psychological and even theological concepts. But in order to understand it as a metaphor, I need to give you a bit of background on how the game is played.

Each team puts 5 skaters on the track at a time, for a period of play called a jam. A jam can’t last more than 2 minutes, so there are a lot of them during the game. Of those 5 skaters that each team puts out, one is called the jammer, and she is the offensive skater – the one who scores points. The other four are the defensive players, and they are called blockers. In short, the jammer earns a point for every blocker from the opposing team that she passes.

So jammers are trying to get past the blockers to score points.

Blockers are trying to both prevent the opposing jammer from passing them, as well as making holes for their jammer to get through.

That is the gist of it.

I played both positions, but I really loved playing the jammer – mostly because she gets to skate really, really fast.

But I had a problem as a jammer – one that is pretty common to those of us in the position: I paid almost no attention to what my blockers were doing. I was a lone wolf, trying to get through the pack of skaters on my own so that I could score points.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was my job to score the points. The pressure started to get to me. The nervous butterflies that I would get at the beginning of each game got worse and worse, until I was almost having an anxiety attack. At that point, I decided to quit jamming and stick with blocking.

A teammate, a fellow jammer who had been doing it for a lot longer than me, sat me down to talk. She explained to me that when a jammer feels like she is a lone wolf, that the burden of responsibility for the game falls to her and her alone, then she is not acting like a team player. This experienced player told me that she had been in a similar situation, and she had learned that she needed to trust her teammates: both the blockers on the track with her and the other jammers on the team when they got on the track for a jam. She said that she had to learn that the responsibility was not all on her.

With this shift in understanding, I was able to return to jamming – and I became a better jammer. Because we are better together. The lone wolf jammer needs to develop trust in her teammates.

So what does all this mean for those of us gathered here? As individuals, and as a faith tradition, many of us struggle with liberal guilt. We feel like it is all on us, and only us, to create justice in the world, to save the planet, to “insert your cause here”. We have a deep sense of social responsibility, one that, at times, becomes a burden of responsibility not unlike that experienced by the jammer.

This burden of responsibility comes, in part, from a misinterpretation in our theology. We can find this misinterpretation when we look at the 5 smooth stones from James Luther Adams. Let me explain.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister, social activist, scholar, theologian, author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. “Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century.” According to Adams, there are five smooth stones that are hallmarks of religious liberalism. They are:

1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly being revealed. We are always learning new truths.

2. All relations between people ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion. We choose to enter into relationship with one another – it is not forced.

3. Liberal religion affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is our responsibility to work for justice.

4. Good must be consciously given form and power within history. That good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.

And finally,
5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope!

Let’s go back to the third and fourth ones for a minute. These are the ones that say that it is our responsibility to work for justice, and that good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. When we hear these two together, we may mistakenly get the idea that it is ALL up to US to make these good things happen – that without our hands, without my hands, without your hands actively working all the time to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, it won’t bend and we won’t get there. It is UP TO US!

This can lead to a paralyzing sense of responsibility, both in our individual lives and as a faith tradition. There have been times when I have stood for 10 minutes in front of the canned tomatoes at the grocery store, trying to figure out whether I should buy the organic ones, or the low-salt ones, or the ones grown in the United States, or maybe I shouldn’t buy the canned tomatoes but the jarred ones instead because then I can reuse the glass jar, or maybe what I should do is by the fresh ones and cut them myself, but do I buy the local hydroponically grown ones, or…

It can be paralyzing.

And not only paralyzing, it can mean we are afraid to take risks, because so much is on our shoulders that we DARE NOT STUMBLE.

So we end up stuck in place, not moving, afraid to go forward. Crippled by our sense of responsibility.

Adams, or JLA as he is most often called, was a huge proponent of voluntary associations. He never would have said that hope rested on only one small group of people – he was talking about all liberal religionists, not just Unitarians. JLA was famous for recasting Jesus’ saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” into “By their groups you shall know them.” He did this to “emphasize that our ethics are revealed not in our intentions or even in our individual actions but in the relationships and institutions we commit ourselves to.”

So it is not our individual or collective actions that will save us, but our relationships. And so, interestingly enough, the solution for our overwhelming sense of responsibility to save the world and everyone in it is exactly the same as the solution for lone wolf jammers in roller derby: Trust. Trust that we are all in it together.

We don’t have to do this work alone, and it does not rest entirely on our shoulders. Far from it!

Instead, we can be part of a larger team of folks working to love the hell out of the world, working to bring about the beloved community, working to bring heaven to earth. There are many different ways of expressing it – and we do say we need not think alike to love alike, right? We can partner with folks who may be compatible on one issue but very different than us on another.

We are living this reality right now at First U by having joined CLOUT – Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. We are the first non-Christian entity to join them, but I don’t think we will be the last. We are partnering in areas we agree on: access to jobs & transportation, the destructive nature of payday lending, and affordable housing. When we gather for meetings, I hold an awareness that several of the congregations we are partnering with do not believe that I should be a minister because I am a woman. And some have taken active stances against same-sex marriage. But we join together to work on the issues upon which we agree because we are stronger together.

And then, we partner with the local LGBT Fairness organizations to work on issues with them. And we partner with the local grassroots organization working to end mountaintop removal. We are constantly looking for organizations to partner with, not so that we can lead but so that we can be faithful allies, standing in solidarity. It not only helps these important organizations, it helps us!

To build trust, we must find partners we can be in relationship with so that we know we are not in it alone. Once we have done that, we will find we have more energy free’d up to take risks, to step into the discomfort, knowing that even if we fail, our partners will be there working towards similar goals. Having partners frees us from the paralyzation we feel when we think we are carrying the burden alone, that it is all on our shoulders.

I experienced this first-hand at General Assembly a few months ago. After a very difficult floor session debating the wording for a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness, there was a Black Lives Matter rally held outside the convention center. Rev. Sekou, a noted Ferguson, Missouri, activist, called on those of us gathered, mostly white, to “be more than allies, but to be freedom fighters.” He gave us directions for how we were going to conduct a die-in – that most people would form a circle around a nearby intersection, blocking traffic. In the center, a smaller group would lay down and perform a die-in, lying on the ground for 4 minutes – one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body lay on the road in Ferguson.

I knew I wanted to participate in the die-in, that I wanted to be a part of what I felt was an important “walk the talk” action with my fellow co-religionists. But I was scared. I turned to my colleague, the Rev. Jan Taddeo, minister at our congregation in Lawerenceville, Georgia. “I want to do this, but I am afraid!” I said. “Me too” she said. And so we clasped hands, and went and lay down in the road for 4 very long minutes. We held hand the whole time. I could not have done it without her.

We are better, stronger together. And we are able to take risks, do things, that we would normally not be able to do.

Whether it is the obligation the jammer feels to score as many points as possible, or the feeling that if we don’t save the world, no one will…No matter where the overwhelming sense of responsibility comes from, when we find trusted others with whom we can partner, we are able to recover from our belief that it is all on us.

And as JLA’s fifth smooth stone tells us, the resources available justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope. May we remember that we are not alone, but instead are in it together.

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