The Tragedy of the World We Live In

One of the core questions of religion is why bad things happen, especially to good people. We seem to have more and more opportunities to ask that question.

Vans and trucks plowing into people on sidewalks. The shooting of political representatives at a baseball game. A fire in London. The on-going war in Syria. Police not held responsible for shooting innocent black people.

Terrorism, war, injustice.

All this on top of the routine cancer diagnoses, deaths of loved ones, political scandals, broken hearts, all the stuff of life.

We live in a world of tragedy.

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Simultaneously, we live in a world of wonder and beauty. We cannot ignore either. How, though? How can we hold all this together and manage to stay balanced and rational?

First, we have to recognize that we cannot do everything. We cannot care for every child who has been hurt and abused. We cannot prevent every unnecessary death. We cannot stop every unjust law.

We can acknowledge and know the reality of each of these, though. We can let it in and feel what it stirred up. We can refuse to become jaded and adjusted to a world of tragedy. We can even let ourselves feel helpless, if we don’t let ourselves stay there. We can share our feelings with others and comfort and be comforted. We need to work through the emotional response, because unless we do, our reactions and responses will stay at an emotional level.

Because the next step is to decide where we can focus our own limited, but real, energies. Those energies multiply when we join them with others. Working in concert more than doubles what we can do. Joining voices can be effective.

And, to stay inspired and energized, we have to find those places of beauty and wonder in the world, know them, and try to spread them, squeezing out the unnecessary tragedy. We have to learn to love the world as it is, while trying to make it better every day.

I hope we do some of that as we gather together in our fellowship.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Beyond Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter activists continue to direct our attention towards black people, especially teenagers and young men, being shot by police. The latest story of the acquittal of former Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby for her shooting of Terence Crutcher reinforces the sense that justice will not be done in such cases. By the time you read this, another case, sadly, may have caught our attention. They have become part of the landscape of our lives.

In the meantime, our own religious association (the Unitarian Universalist Association) struggles with more subtle and less violent manifestations of the persistence of racism. Hiring processes brought the issue to light, but it hits every aspect of organizational life. UUA leaders are establishing a Commission on Institutional Change to help make a transition to a new future we cannot yet imagine. They want to use a truth and reconciliation approach to examine the events that led to the recent crisis in the association. Addressing structural racism and issues of equity will take much more, though. Our three interim co-presidents (Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Bettencourt and Dr. Leon Spencer) had this to say about a recent consultation that helped shape what the Commission on Institutional Change will be and do:

We found ourselves looking for a Universalism that points toward transformation. We engaged this moment as an opportunity to redeem a piece of the history of our faith and to serve as a model of love and justice to the broader world. We focused on questions of power, liberation, leadership, and recentering those pushed to the margins. We unflinchingly questioned cultural habits and norms that hamper us in our yearning to build the Beloved Community. [from a UUA News Alert]

What would it mean to take this approach, this rigorous self-examination, in our own organization, in our own lives? How do we move from being a fellowship centering ourselves to an organization that fully engages with the liberation of people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and others who find themselves marginalized in our culture? Can we “unflinchingly question cultural habits and norms that hamper us in our yearning to build the Beloved Community”? To fully live out Unitarian Universalist values in the coming years will require demanding personal, interpersonal, and institutional transformative work.

What is your place in it?

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Letter to the Mercury

I have received an amazing amount of positive feedback from the community as well as the fellowship about this letter, published in May 8 Manhattan Mercury, so I am copying the letter here:

The noose found on campus Friday (May 5) disturbs and upsets me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister and as a person. More importantly, the reaction to it feels insufficient and dismissive, especially since it follows recent incidents of anti-Semitic and racist signs posted. Responses that I have seen to the noose came from Jeff Morris, the vice president for communications and marketing. And the response felt like a communications and marketing response, claiming we don’t really know what it means and doesn’t represent K-State.

Please. We know what a noose means. The symbolism comes from the long and shameful history of lynching of black people by mobs. The noose is an assertion of white supremacy, a threat to people of color, and a commonly recognized means of intimidation.

While I don’t encourage overreaction, I do recognize this as a minor form of terrorism, an action deliberately devised to create fear.

Around the country, white supremacists are gaining in courage and numbers. Blatant racism has become more public, and needs a clear and uncompromising response.

We need to hear more. We need to hear that K-State will not tolerate racism. We need to hear that a major focus of the university is protection of its students and staff of color. We need to hear that the values of K-State and our community are decidedly anti-racist, and that racist sentiments whether expressed forthrightly or cowardly are never welcome here.

I, for one, and the congregation I serve, have no patience for such blatant racism in our community.

The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone

UU Fellowship Of Manhattan

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Celebrating May Day

Twentieth century American naturalist Edwin Way Teale expressed a sentiment many would agree with: “The world’s favorite season is the spring./ All things seem possible in May.” Spring brings us many signs of hope and celebration – graduations, recitals, flowers, baseball, picnics. We’re in the thick of that season.

For thousands of years, May 1 has been welcomed with dancing and singing. If Maypoles and May baskets seem quaint these days, we still appreciate the blooming flowers and the hopeful attitudes.

A few hundred years ago, the Puritans banned the celebration of May Day. I suppose they saw the holiday as frivolous and tied in with pagan debauchery. Of course, Puritans, having colonized New England had a huge influence over what the country was to become.

Puritans were not the only colonizers, though. Thomas Morton came to Massachusetts in 1624 and claimed that the colony had two types of people – Christians and Infidels. He much preferred the latter. He called them ‘most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other.’ The Puritans received the blunt edge of his mockery; he played the Stephen Colbert of his day. He praised the Native people and organized a rebellion of indentured servants against his own business partner.

Unable to endure the Plymouth Plantation, he established another colony, Merrymount, where on May 1, 1627, he had a huge Maypole erected and threw a tremendous “Merrie Olde England” party. Governor William Bradford refused to let it happen again, sending armed men to the party the next year, arresting Morton. Despite the arms, no one shot. Morton’s claim was they didn’t want to spill blood; the Puritans said the Merrymount folks were too drunk to fight. If you want to know more of the decades long struggles between Morton and the Puritans, check out this article http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/maypole-infuriated-puritans/.

Our history is never so simple as we think. There have always been resisters, and always will be. And therein lies some of the hope.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Growth and Change

Here at the intersection of risk (March’s theme) and transformation (April’s theme), I pause to observe our context.

Our fellowship has committed itself to being a visible beacon of liberal religious messages of hope and meaning in our local community. That means taking risks to create transformation. The first requirement when we speak about transformation is letting go of the idea that we know what we will look like ten years from now. If we knew, we wouldn’t be welcoming real transformation.

At a recent service, we invited consideration of various ways the congregation could change. Some probably make you make you nervous. Some feel unthinkable. What if the congregation were only virtual? What if it met sometime other than on Sunday? Such ideas are improbable. Others, though, are more feasible – and more immediate — than some might think.

If we are to have the capacity to grow in the ways that the congregation has agreed to, change is required. Our parking lot is full most Sundays; that keeps other people from joining us. At least three-quarters of the time, we are more than three-quarters full in the sanctuary. That also discourages people from joining us. Our children and youth, especially the teens, have make-shift space, rather than a place of their own.

Our Strategic Planning Committee continues to look at long-term options in terms of expansion of our building or moving to a new location. But we need change sooner than that can be accomplished.

The Executive Board has agreed on the appointment of a task force to look at moving to two services. This would be a huge step that would affect many aspects of our community, including religious education, music, greeting, fellowship, and more. We will be careful and strategic about how to proceed. But if we wish to grow in the ways the congregation has committed itself to, we have to make some changes.

In the meantime, if you can park across the street at the nursery on Sunday mornings, please do. If you’re willing to sit towards the front the sanctuary, that’s great too. Help us leave room for others.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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A Pastoral Message for Challenging Times

No doubt about it, we’re in challenging times.

Many people feel that everything changed with the national election last fall. That racial baiting and violence against people of color (whether immigrant or citizen, across the spectrum of religion) became more tolerable. That freedom of the press and speech are under siege. That Christianity has become an almost-established religion. That science is openly dismissed. That women and people who are queer or transgender are under attack, legally and physically. That leaders view health care as an option that is fine to deny to people based on age, income, gender, disability, or illness. That quality education is not for everyone. That the environment doesn’t need protection. That military solutions are more effective than diplomatic ones. That the balance of powers and the role of courts are no more than a nuisance.

At the same time, things haven’t changed. Our country continues to wage undeclared and poorly publicized wars that disrupt our global relationships and kill and injure our own soldiers, while we withhold adequate support for them. Black men, in particular, and people of color in general receive unequal treatment in criminal justice, which results not only in disproportionate imprisonment but also in deaths at the hand of police. Gaps in income and ownership increase between the rich and poor, while the middle class remains threatened. Money and gerrymandering threaten democracy. The effects of climate change accelerate. And the country’s political polarization is reflected in our legislative bodies.

Though everyone’s precise response varies, fear, anxiety and anger have become part of the daily environment for many of us. Fear and anxiety are real, but will not help us. The normal animal response to fear is to run and hide. We have to acknowledge the reality of the feelings, admit that they arise to protect us, and then refuse to give in to the temptation of escapism.

Anger feels more helpful, because anger provokes action. The problem is that anger-motivated action may not help either. Who hasn’t said or done something they regret when they’re mad? Action needs to be more strategic than blind rage permits.

What’s more, at this point, some of us find ourselves already weary and discouraged. The initial intoxication of the Women’s March and the discovery that others felt the same way may have faded. Yet, there is so much more to be done, and everywhere we look, we see more to tackle.

So, what are we to do?

The answer may be in spiritual advice that has worked through the ages — to seek justice, strive for balance, and hold on to hope. Vaclav Havel wrote that hope is “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope helps us trust that when we can’t imagine how it will be OK, we don’t give up. I find hope in the number and enthusiasm of people who are concerned about a better world.

And I can keep hope in mind when I pay attention to balance in my life, to doing regular spiritual practice and getting adequate rest. When I balance my life with spiritual practice and adequate rest, I can think more clearly, strategize better, and manage my emotions of fear, anxiety and anger. I think of the image of a chorus singing as individual singers sneak breaths, breathing when they can, knowing the chorus will sustain the note while they find their breath. The movement will sustain its work while I breathe.

None of this is to give permission for not doing the work. We have to have balance and hope in order to do the work to bring change to the world, not to have an excuse not to act.

Yes, we are in challenging times. We will survive them. We will overcome them. If we determine to.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

 

 

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A Community of Risk

This is a congregation of risk.

Pursuing developmental ministry a couple years ago was a risk, a well-calculated thoroughly planned risk, but a risk nonetheless. Each time someone speaks from our pulpit revealing something of themselves, they take a risk, make themselves a little bit vulnerable. Each time someone joins a protest or writes a letter to the editor or to an elected official, they take a risk putting their opinion out in a public realm. Currently, we have a Strategic Planning Committee looking at options for the future in relation to our building; that, too, will involve risk.

We cannot live our lives without some risk. Nor can our fellowship exist and evolve without risk. Responsible risk requires conviction, commitment, and courage. Conviction means we have something we believe in enough to risk. Commitment funnels that conviction into action. Courage keeps us moving forward even when we are afraid or second-guessing ourselves.

The fellowship calls us to each of those qualities – conviction, commitment and courage. Though Unitarian Universalism does not require particular beliefs, it does expect you to consider your beliefs carefully and to own them fully. UU’s support strong convictions. We also believe those convictions need to funnel into commitment. Commitment can be to a person or people, to an ideal, to an action. Covenant, the foundation of our religious tradition, is one form of commitment, commitment to other people and to the fellowship iteself. Commitment is more than conviction; it is the carrying out of conviction. Finally, by continually seeing others feed their conviction into commitment, your own courage swells.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Who Are You?

Who are you? The simple answer is to respond with a name. Even that has complications – first name or last? Nickname? That name was probably given to you before you had any idea who you were, so how can it really represent your identity? Your name may have changed during your life. You may have adopted an alias or changed your name when you married or went through a personal transition.

My name has never changed. Named after my father John and grandfather Lou, I never had a middle name, which caused some consternation as I was growing up. But with a name like mine, there’s hardly a reason for a middle name.

People formed impressions of me based on my name, often erroneous impressions. One person told me, “I thought you’d be a tall black woman.” When my name came up repeatedly in a conversation many years ago that I wasn’t part of, someone interrupted and asked, “Who is this John Lu, this Chinese fellow, you keep mentioning?” Yet, I was not confused about my race, gender or height.

Our identities are a complex mix of facts, experiences, characteristics, hopes and dreams. Basic identifying information such as birthplace, family name, gender, gender identity, and race may carry richer meaning and implications than we imagine. Certainly, simply stating them doesn’t begin to disentangle what they mean.

Pieces of our identity may be in our awareness constantly, while we forget or reject other pieces entirely. Our identities may be fragmented or integrated, fully embraced or have pinches of discomfort. My name, for instance, I hated when I was growing up. I wished to be Susan or Jane or Michelle – something normal. But I grew into Jonalu, and let go of the discomfort of it. Though if waitstaff in a restaurant ask me name, I tell them “JJ” for simplicity.

Always, identity is in a context where others are reading who we are and forming their own opinions about who we are, which may or may not coincide with what we believe to be true about ourselves. Sometimes, those observations by others may change how we see our own identity. Sometimes, our identity evolves with our experiences.

Any way you look at it, “Who am I?” is one of the most basic questions we have to answer about ourselves. And the answer may never be complete.

 

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On This Inauguration Day

On this Inauguration Day, my hope is in the principles laid down in our founding documents – the will of the majority, checked and balanced by the rights of the minority; the freedom to express our thoughts and feelings and to pursue our dreams; the equality of all people – wherever they come from, whomever they love, whatever their identity. The visions cast more than two centuries ago and repeatedly since then have not died.

Though at times, the American people – individually and collectively — have failed to live up to the vision. The founding itself was not a perfect era – colonialism, slavery and subjugation of women were as present then as the rhetoric of high principles. People have suffered and died because they have not been accepted as equal beings of inherent worth and dignity. Imperfect human beings have always implemented the vision in imperfect ways. I grieve those past imperfections and pray that we do not do any worse.

Yet, even the failures give me hope, in a peculiar way, because when I see the imperfections of the past, I know that the imperfections of the moment need not be fatal. No matter how much distress they create at the time, they may lead to unexpected ends.

On this Inauguration Day, my hope is in the American people, the people I know who want the best not only for themselves, but also for one another. They want – we want – a peaceful world for our children and grandchildren, equal opportunities for all people, justice tempered by mercy. They are – we are – a diverse, lively, compassionate people who are building the world we want to live in. Inconsistently, with many a stumble along the way, we are bending the arc of the universe towards justice.

On this Inauguration Day, I choose to look towards and conjure a vision of democracy as it ought be – spirited debate over how we achieve our dreams, tempered by an unwillingness to leave anyone behind or out of the dreams. We are not a country of winners and losers. We are a country where we strive for everyone to succeed in their particular goals and aims. Together, we are better than we are individually. We call ourselves and one another to a higher standard, to a deeper conversation, to a more loyal expression of our values.

On this Inauguration Day, I commit myself to work to achieve the vision I have and that I believe many share.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

 

 

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On a cold December day, I stood with others, including five members of the Fellowship, at a demonstration on behalf of service and maintenance workers at K-State in their efforts to move the basic wage from $10.56 an hour up to $12 an hour, equal to wages at the University of Kansas. This exemplifies the prophetic witness in the public square, though it was not specifically a religious witness.

While our charitable work as a congregation matters — giving clothes to the FIT Closet, food to the Breadbasket, Christmas gifts to families at the Manhattan Emergency Shelter, cooking up breakfast at the Happy Kitchen — justice demands more of us. Our religious values recommend engagement with the democratic process and speaking out for justice, equity, compassion, peace and liberty. My friend and colleague Paul Rasor, director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom and professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan University, wrote a book a few years ago, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square. His thesis is that religious liberals (UU’s, mainline churches, Reform and Conservative Jews and many others) have ceded the public role of religion to conservatives, deserting a long historic heritage of liberal religious prophets, including abolitionists, war-resisters, and civil rights leaders. We may still be out there on the line fighting for what we believe in, but we no longer cast it in religious or moral language or tone.

Yet, there are religious and moral motivations behind our positions. Bigotry and discrimination are wrong because they undermine the worth and dignity we ascribe to all human beings. Destruction of our climate is wrong because it disrupts the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Aggressive militarism works against the goal of peace for the world community. When we take our UU principles seriously, they have real implications for policy and politics. They also help us sift through the difference between liberal religion and liberal politics, which remain distinct, though overlapping. The test is how do our religious values guide us?

In North Carolina, thousands of people have been involved with a movement called Moral Mondays (http://moralmonday.org), where a broad coalition of progressives, including religious leaders, have called on their legislature and governor to support voting rights, public education, social programs, and fair taxation because it’s the right thing to do. Rev. William Barber, a key leader of Moral Mondays, praises fusion politics, bringing a diversity of people together to support an agenda that is not shy about saying what is right and wrong.

There’s a movement in Kansas to do the same thing — the Kansas People’s Agenda will gather at the Capitol on January 11. We are helping to support the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice in providing a bus to go. You can make reservations here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdtoxaqeCq5NU0JnpuzJ3nlqioFmvBPk6A0s_xK-PE-FhVTbw/viewform.

Another opportunity to be involved in UU prophetic witness will happen Saturday, February 4, when UU’s from around the state gather to engage together about our prophetic work. Facebook event is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/278701435865969/

Paul Rasor says it well:

As religious liberals, we know that we are united in a single interdependent world, that human beings have the ability to create good as well as evil, that our diversity is something to celebrate rather than fear, and that we can build just and liberating human communities. This is the message of healing and hope our prophetic social justice practice brings to the world.

Hope to see you somewhere soon working for justice,

Jonalu

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