Mixing the strange and the familiar keeps our progressive religion evolving …

The good poem maintains a delicate balance between strangeness and familiarity. The author must make the familiar strange enough to be re-seen or re-felt by the reader. The truth is always a little strange because the conventional world has little interest in truth, and regularly accepts packaged versions of it …

This excerpt from Stephen Dunn’s essay, The Good, The Not So Good, defines a central paradox of Unitarian Universalism. Mixing the strange and the familiar keeps our progressive religion evolving. People ask, “How can people who don’t believe in God be in the same congregation with those who do?” It’s not so hard when you promote diversity and compassionate listening.

We need the sense of being rooted in our lives as we are growing out of them. The need to have a safe haven where you can be yourself doesn’t exclude the need to practice radical hospitality. Welcoming the stranger stretches us into an essential tension. To be open to others is a way of being open to the world. Being stretched in two directions keeps us flexible.

The willingness to evolve makes life so much more interesting. Yes, there are some awful consequences that the industrial revolution has wrought, but it has freed many people from spirit numbing and body breaking labor. All the new technology today may feel off-putting to those of us who are older, but it can provide amazing tools of communication that have a democratizing impact on the world we live in. It gives everybody the opportunity to lift up their voice. Yes, it can feel chaotic, but it also brings in a new order.

The history of failed UU congregations may be marked by their lack of willingness to change; to shake things up a bit. I’m not advocating chaos as a good strategy, but the feeling that comes when I walk into a happy grammar school which is deeply supported by families, teachers, staff, and community. There’s a buoyancy that makes me feel more alive, more curious, more receptive and very happy.

Thoughtful experimentation is a good way to go. We honor those people who started and nurtured this Fellowship by infusing it with new programs within and without. If something doesn’t work, try something else. But one thing for sure is that we don’t want to be a packaged version of Unitarian Universalism. I believe we want to live out our shared truth with brave hearts and keen intelligence. I believe that the potential for an increasingly colorful, vital and meaningful presence is endless if we give ourselves to the big vision of what is possible!
With love,

Michael

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I plan to retire in May of 2016 …

Kansas gay feather, those violet-purple spires, have begun to bloom on the roadside. Soon asters and goldenrod will shine across the prairie, summoning autumn. At our Fellowship Board retreat, which moved with gusto into the important issues that give our community forward momentum, I announced that I plan to retire in May of 2016. Normally, a minister shares this information when only a couple of months of their tenure remain. That approach feels wrong for me. It would not honor the relationship I have with this caring community. It would feel fraudulent.

My abiding hope is that we will continue to work together to build the bridges inside and outside our community that allow for a freer flow of people, ideas, creativity, and action that leaves people knowing that we are a bold model of love. Many ministers begin to leave before they are done. Their focus on what comes next causes them to be more neglectful of the ongoing needs of the congregation. I commit to give my best until my last day, to share and receive what promotes healthy growth.

I will count on collaboration with all of you to help lead the way.

With love,

Michael

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On a perfect Swedish evening …

On a perfect Swedish evening, on the beach of a perfect lake ringed by woods and meadows, a family arrives just as the red-gold of the lowering sun begins to shimmer on the water. The daughter and father move quickly into the lake and swim out. The mother sits on a large towel, reaches for her phone and starts scrolling. She never looks up.

Another family arrives. The father is black and the mother is white. The two daughters are a beautiful mix of their parents. The kids and dad move into the lake. The daughters call, “Mama, come mama, come, it is so beautiful.” She dives in and the family takes turns diving in off the pier. Their laughter is contagious.

The woman on the towel studies her phone as if it were the Talmud–a source for answers to deeply troubling questions.

There are no radios or motorboats. The geese are talking in a bay of cattails. The big cranes cry out in the distance.

I pray for the willpower and grace to become more present.

Michael

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A decade has passed since we sold our little house in Sweden …

A decade has passed since we sold our little house in Sweden. We left boxes of books, family pictures, bikes, and antiques with a friend. Stuff that we could not haul back to Kansas or simply toss. It’s time to sort through these belongings.

It makes us happy to return to a more leisurely approach to time; the encouragement to schedule more mindfully. Instead of packing in 5 to 7 major things in a day the Swedes leave more time for rest and revitalization. They enjoy 6 weeks of vacation and have many more long weekends than we do in America. Almost everything shuts down during these Holidays. Less harried, life becomes simplified. When we’re invited for a coffee, we look forward to a three-hour visit with 7 treats and many cups of strong coffee. Conversations build to a crescendo and a lull that comforts, opens–the space to appreciate one another’s company in silence. The unspoken rule: do not rush.

When my cousin Peter and his wife had their last child, he was given two weeks off to help bring their baby home so that everyone could integrate this new life into the family, and fully celebrate Sarah’s arrival. Anna-Lisa was given two years leave of absence from her job and received 80% of her pay. When she returned to work she relied on good childcare available to all families in Sweden. If Peter had decided to stay at home instead of his wife, he would have received the same benefits as his wife did. They also had the option of splitting the benefits between them.

Sweden ranks as one of the world’s most gender-egalitarian countries. Swedes believe men and women should share power and influence equally. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2013, Sweden is a world leader in equality. On average, women’s monthly salaries are 94 per cent of men’s, when differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account. Pay disparity is found mostly in the private sector. After the 2010 election, 45 percent of the seats in the Swedish Parliament were filled by women, down from 47 per cent after the 2006 election–the first fall in this figure since the 1930s. At present, 13 of the 24 Government ministers are women.

Time in Sweden provides us relief from the inequities that plague our society and inspire us to advocate for more equality when we return home.

May we all be inspired to work for a well-balanced life so that when joy beckons, we’re available.

Michael

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Do you ever need a break from bad news? …

Do you ever need a break from bad news? I do. Since the 1980’s, I’ve taken breaks from NPR and the headlines. An endless stream of horror stories pulls joy from my bones. I become exhausted and starved for meaning that sustains and inspires. I turn from the news toward what restores a larger context, a great vision, pleasure, so that I can balance the negative with a good dose of the positive. I was raised with the threat of annihilation during the cold war. We were drilled to get under our desk if the USSR dropped the bomb.

I learned to seek sources of inspiration that let me know my place in the universe without fear and doom. My red Schwinn took me to Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, Lake Michigan and the forest preserves. Exploring brought me to nooks, expanses and glades that retain the rich power to fill me with wonder. These memories remind me to have fun and to keep seeking those places where wonder hides in full sight. Keeping the spirit of exploration alive challenges me to be fully present in this second. This is easy to forget. I forget it all the time.

At our Kansas Wedding on May 3, I saw my mother dance for the first time in years. She used to dance the hambo, shottish, and polka with unbelievable gusto and grace. A dinner and a dance followed a wedding in Chicago. Happiness filled her and overflowed. It astonished me to see my duty bound mom unwind and whirl with abandon. We need celebration in our lives. The DJ who has provided music for lots of weddings said that the Fellowship wedding was the most fun wedding she’s ever DJ’ed. We thank you all for helping us to celebrate love and for your support of marriage equality.

Yesterday while driving home I tuned into NPR at just the right moment. I learned that Narendra Modi had been elected prime minister of India, the world’s largest democracy. The son of a tea seller from one of India’s lower castes was overpowered by emotion as he spoke of the people of his home state, where he grew up in a small village. He said, “You people of Gujarat are my mother and father. You have raised me. While I serve Mother India, I will also worry about you. You are my energy, you are my inspiration, you are my strength.” Modi spoke with deep conviction about the need for the government to serve all its citizens no matter who they were, where they had come from, how much or how little they had. He wants to serve the poorest of the poor and to decrease the ability of religion to oppress. This reporting filled me with hope.

As the next segment on bikers against child abuse aired I began to weep for joy. It moved me to hear how women and men who ride big Harleys have organized to protect children from further abuse by standing watch outside of their homes at night and showing up in court when a child testifies against an adult who has harmed them. They simultaneously work to protect and to help a traumatized kid to regain stability and a confident sense of their place in the world.

Wow! There is a lot of good in the world and I know that this community helps to create and spread goodness where needed.

Let us celebrate our good works more freely!

Michael

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When the well runs dry we tap our storage tank …

When the well runs dry we tap our storage tanks for water. Last night when the sound of rain on the roof woke me, something in me eased. I woke up a couple of times to the start and stop of a good rain. The rain was not steady. It came in bursts. This morning I thought as I went to check the rain gage it would be shy of an inch and it was. Living with a well whose waters do not run deep has increased our sensitivity to moisture. We watch the springs. When they stop trickling out the sides of hills we know our supply of water is limited.

Living out here in the hills teaches us the value of water and to monitor its usage. Showers are quick. Get wet. Wash. Rinse. When we clean dishes or produce in the sink there is a watering can to catch the runoff. The garage roof funnels water into a 1,700 gallon tank. One inch of rain yields about 500 gallons. We have two other tanks collecting water from other roofs to water the garden.

Our energy efficient dish and clothes washer help us conserve. My mother laughs when we visit, because it is as if I were back in college, bringing dirty laundry to her house. But now I do the washing and drying.

The stream in front of our house has been mostly silent the last three years. The pools have filled with algae. I miss the thrilling sound of rushing water. I worry about the big blue heron who fishes by the bridge. Will there be enough, or any, fish for her this year? I hope so, because I will miss the sound of her lifting into the air at dusk and flying over our house to her nest. There is something comforting in the sound of the large wings flapping and the long grace of her body flying overhead as the first stars become visible.

Water is a gift of life. Without water we cannot survive. I sometimes wish I lived back in town and could have a drip system on timers to water the roots of the fruit trees, vegetables, bushes and flowers, but then the intimate relationship I have with all that feeds me would be lessened. In an inferno summer I cuss our situation, but when it rains gratitude spreads through every cell of my body. I feel washed in goodness and the possibility of new and deeper growth. Let us do what we can to conserve water, and to keep water pure and flowing.

Blessings,

Michael

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After a harsh winter I am thankful for hardy rootstock …

After a harsh winter I am thankful for hardy rootstock that allows the trees in our orchard to survive. As spring slowly shows its face I look for signs of growth on bushes and perennials that do not fare well when the temperatures drop below zero. For the last couple of years, I watched a rosemary plant become a small bush, thriving with mild winters. It’s a goner. I’ll try another of this variety, but I’ll be more careful in choosing bushes that are tolerant of minus zero weather as I begin to replace those that have died.

Roots are important. Our Unitarian Universalist faith founded in the Free Church branch of the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe grew differently in American soil. Both religions resisted Calvinist doctrines: total depravity (Original Sin) and Predestination. Both religions could not fathom a God that before birth would chose some to be Heaven bound and others destined to Hell. American Unitarians believed that Jesus was an ethical teacher and it diminished his teachings if you believed that he had supernatural powers. American Universalists believed that all souls would be reconciled to a loving God that ultimately treated all people as equals.

These roots help us today to use our intelligence and heart to be of service in the world. Our Fellowship class that is studying The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has begun to explore how America incarcerates more of its racial and ethnic minorities than any other country in the world. In Baltimore, 50% of black men in their twenties are either in jail or have served time in jail. Once you have been convicted of a felony you can lose the right to vote and become ineligible for public housing and a host of programs that help people who are in need. We call our country The Land of the Free, but I am afraid it is a statement without sufficient roots to nourish the claim.

A month before Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain, he said, I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it honestly. I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. ‘Ye shall know the truth and it shall set you free.’ And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.

Reading Jane Alexander’s alarming book informs us of how America deliberately recreated systems to replace slavery. If you do not want to read the book, please watch Bill Moyer’s interview with her last year. It stuns.

On another front of human rights issues, our Fellowship’s statement of principle on Marriage Equality has inspired the Salina, Hutchinson and Topeka Fellowships to make similar declarations. The roots of our free faith called us to publically declare our support for the rights of same sex couples to be married in Kansas. In the sanctuary of our Fellowship, on May 3rd, at 3 pm, Charles and I invite you to join us, as we have the ceremony the State insists on deprecating.

Michael

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Personal reflections in support of AllsFairKansas.com

Fellowship member Sarah McGreer Hoyt offers some personal reflections in support of AllsFairKansas.com, raising funds to support the fight for recognition of legal same-sex unions in the state of Kansas.

I met Rev Michael Nelson in August 2000. We were both students in a graduate creative writing workshop at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he received his master’s degree. I remember him as a calm presence who radiated energy during workshop, and I enjoyed being around him for those four months of the semester. After that, I did not see him again for almost a dozen years.

In June 2012, I came to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan. I was looking for a community outside of my work, one that espouses respect for many walks of life and a diversity of beliefs. I was pleased to see many of my neighbors, professors from around campus, and graduate students among the congregation, yet it took me a few weeks to realize that Michael, this ebullient spirit and eloquent speaker, was my classmate from years ago.

I have been blessed to hear his sermons on everything from building community to water conservation to finding and celebrating joy, and he is one of the primary reasons I became a member of UUFM a year after I first attended.

On November 10, The Manhattan Mercury ran an engagement announcement for Michael Nelson and his partner, Charles Dedmon. It began, “After almost 30 years of careful consideration, Michael Nelson and Charles Dedmon, both of rural Alma, announce their engagement.” Thirty years.

Three years ago, I signed up to be a mentor through K-State’s Guide to Personal Success (GPS) Program. While filling out the paperwork, under “Other,” I entered “LGBT friendly.” I was paired with Will. At the time, Will, who is transgender, had just arrived on campus as a freshman after coming out to his immediate family. He had never presented as male in all of his 18 years.

Since then, he’s changed his name, his appearance, has found academic success, worked as a teaching assistant, and found a close circle of friends. When we met for coffee before Christmas, he shyly told me that he’s dating. In fact, he has a partner.

I support All’s Fair Kansas for my LGBT friends, neighbors, and co-workers. For Michael. And for Will. Knowing them has enriched my life. What kind of person would I be if I did not wish them and their partners the same happiness, love, and equal rights?

It’s only fair.

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AN OPEN LETTER TO ACLU ATTORNEYS IN CHARGE OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY

Dear _______ ,

We spoke with you in the fall when we were seriously considering the possibility of filing a case in federal court asking Kansas to recognize same sex marriages. You were adamant in your assertion that any such attempt was not to be encouraged. In fact you went so far as to say that an attempt would harm the national cause. You inferred that patience would be best for same sex couples in Kansas, that the efforts of ACLU would eventually have a positive impact on our need for marriage equality. You believed that the Federal judges in Kansas would not rule in favor of marriage equality.

Charles, my partner and spouse who had practiced in Federal court for two decades, believed that your assess- ment about the federal judges in Kansas was wrong. When we asked you what you had based your assumption on, your response did not seem to be based in knowledge you were willing to share, but was rather, it seemed to us, in the realm of conjecture. Both Lambda Legal and the ACLU expressed a desire to keep us from moving forward in demanding that our marriage be recognized by Kansas.

Now we have positive Oklahoma and Utah marriage equality cases in the tenth circuit. This does not square with the strategy of keeping these cases in more moderate jurisdictions. Do the assumptions about Kansas retain validity? We were deeply disappointed by the earlier ACLU response to our arguments. It seemed your goal was to make sure we kept quiet and behaved. Charles and I have supported the good work of the ACLU for years. Our recent experience gives us pause. We wish it were otherwise.

Are you willing to rethink your national strategy on marriage equality? We would very much like your help in a case we have filed with Kansas [Shawnee County District Court, Case No. 13 – C1465] to recognize the legitimacy of the marriages of same sex couples in Kansas in regards how to file state taxes. We understand that marriage equality presents a complex set of legal issues. We also know that LGTBQ people of Kansas are no less worthy of help from the ACLU than similar folk in Virginia.

The educational efforts you spoke of, as being the means the ACLU would help educate Kansans on marriage equality seems to have had little impact. Perhaps there are better ways to use your resources in our beloved state.

Sincerely,

Rev. Michael Nelson

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The New Jim Crow

I reserve Sunday evenings at 5 pm for time on the elliptical machine and Bill Moyers. On December 22, he interviewed Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow. This book examines how our nation’s criminal justice system has reinstitutionalized slavery. There are a number of states that promise a minimum of 95% occupancy for their for-profit prisons. Alexander exposes the links between the civil rights movement and the alarming increase of people being imprisoned; a hugely disproportionate number of them being African American.

While this feature of America may not be surprising, the extent that our government strips people of dignity, legal rights and any access to hope for an opportunity to reform and contribute positively to society, did. The facts stun the mind and the heart. While Alexander is acutely intelligent and articulate, her face shines with the kind of hope you seldom see in people so involved with such devastating oppression. How does she keep cynicism clear from the center of her vision? Regardless of the overwhelming injustice she works to correct, she believes that America still has the capacity to lift up the promise of an inalienable right for all people to pursue happiness. Her passion for bringing goodness to all is rooted in the bleak reality of our criminal justice system. Her belief in human potential to do the right thing lifts her from resentment and hostility into a realm of loving kindness. She is a bold model of love.

When we focus our best energy on finding solutions to grave problems we empower ourselves and others. When we forget to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person no matter how much we might disagree with them we rob ourselves of hope. Our Unitarian Universalist community grows stronger and more vibrant the more we engage in helping to create a world in which everyone is guaranteed their civil rights. Hard work is not enough. One must cultivate a good heart, which does not yield to the kind of power that kills hope. This requires us to believe in the interconnectedness of all people regardless of race, religion, educational or economic level. We must believe in the potential for good in all people and allow love to keep us focused on what is possible. Let us work with a good heart for marriage equality, prison reform, the rights of children, women, senior citizens, all people to be safe from abuse of every kind, every person who needs a path back to hope and the dignity that brings.

May this New Year bring peace and love to all …

Michael

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