Peace on Earth?

My favorite Christmas song is an obscure one – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words. The narrator tells of hearing the bells ringing on Christmas Day, repeating the refrain of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All” (yes, yes, the original says “men,” so I update the language). The narrator gets upset, seeing how the world makes a mockery of such wishes “for hate is strong.”

Many of us identify with that narrator to this day. Hate continues to be strong. Even as Confederate flags disappear from official places, racism has reasserted itself on-line and sneaked out of private places into the public realm. A two-tiered system of criminal justice allows black men to die and be incarcerated at stunning rates. Despite increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, BGLTQ people – especially those who are transgender – encounter open hostility. At least 21 transgender people, many of them people of color, have been killed violently so far this year, according the Human Rights Campaign. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 892 hate groups across the country, an uptick last year for the first time since 2011, near double the number of groups as they counted in 1999. In the wake of the election, haters seem emboldened. Swastikas have reappeared as graffiti, and hijab-wearing women confronted with threats. Yes, the words “Peace on Earth” are being mocked.

Longfellow, in the song, hears the bell peel again, louder and deeper, asserting that God is not dead, so “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” While that speaks to me, I recognize that those who dismiss or struggle with the idea of such a God may not be encouraged. However, one need not embrace theism to trust a moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice. When Longfellow wrote the song in 1863, slavery had not yet been vanquished from this continent. Women were subservient to men legally and in practice in their daily lives. People who did not conform to expected roles of gender and sexual orientation were invisible. A Civil War raged, taking hundreds of thousands of lives, about 2 percent of the population. As bleak as it looks today in the battle of love versus hate, 1863 was far worse. Steven Pinker, whose book The Angels of Our Better Nature explores the incidence of violence through history, asserts that despite blips like the Syrian war and IS terrorism, we are far more safe than we have been in the past, and that that trend holds true across the world – less homicide, less war, less genocide. If we look at the large scale, we are more peaceful.

The world keeps turning. You may or may not feel a presence that reassures you, but I hope in this season of striving towards peace and goodwill, you find encouragement and inspiration.

 

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

 

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Post-Election Thoughts

We are now two weeks past the election. Some of the intensity of feelings has faded. The dust may be settling, though the nation is still divided. That would be true no matter what the election results had been. One party dominates every branch of government, though the vote was pretty evenly split between parties. The tendency is to pull into two disparate groups, with two diametrically opposed stories. While there may be some truth to that picture, it’s also an oversimplification that distorts reality. We have great challenges before us, no matter which side of the divide we sit on. Times are difficult.

UU Church of the Larger Fellowship minister Meg Riley says:

Difficult times can be clarifying.  Clarifying about our purpose here on the earth and how we want to spend our days.  We hear it all the time from people who have been dealt a significant blow-illness, or job loss, or divorce, or sudden death of a loved one.

So, what has been clarified?

As I consider what I am called to as a Unitarian Universalist, as a minister, as a citizen, as a human being, I’ve come up with a short list:

  1. I need to pay attention. Not to media dust-ups, but to what is really happening. I need to read and listen to thoughtful people who have real information and ideas, rather than following clickbait. When intense controversies arise over minor matters, I need to ask what I am being distracted from.
  2. I need to be prepared. I can’t be sure what I need to be prepared for. What is predicted rarely happens. Instead, we are surprised. So, if anything could happen, I need to be spiritually grounded and ready to respond ethically, honestly and strategically to whatever happens.
  3. I need to nurture my connections with others. What I know about community organizing is that it relies on relationship. I need to stay in relationship with others who can help me in responding to whatever happens.
  4. I need to continue my work for justice and compassion, calmly and rationally, thoughtfully and strategically, rather than reactively and chaotically. For me, this likely means continued work on the local and state levels where our voices can be more readily heard.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. The world remains a sometimes dangerous, sometimes wonderful place. My hope is that you, too, will find difficult times clarifying, and that you will find your way to pursue your purpose.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Fellowship Stories

When a group of us gathered for the Strategic Planning Workshop in late September, Katie Kingery-Page led us in a story-telling exercise. Small groups were invited to come up with and share with the whole group stories of the fellowship building that had stuck with people. The most popular story came up a few times – the story of the wedding of Michael Nelson and Charles Dedmon. Michael was my immediate predecessor, serving as part-time minister of this fellowship for ten years. Their wedding was a long awaited joyous occasion. Apparently, every space was filled with happy celebrants – family, friends, and fellowship members. The food excelled, the dancing swept people up. Generations mixed easily inside and outdoors. The building played a character in a jubilant drama, shaping and being shaped by the experience.

I’ve heard a lot of the stories of this congregation in the last year or so. One that struck me particularly deeply is the story of how the fellowship came to reside on Zeandale Road. Some of you reading this know the story much better than I do, and I may get some of the details wrong, but it’s a significant passage to reflect on as we look towards the future in our planning. In the 1980’s only a few committed members were left in the fellowship, meeting then in a house on Bluemont. All the children had grown up, and members wondered if the fellowship would survive.

So they took a great risk. They bought a small building owned by the school district out on Zeandale Road. It needed work if it was to be usable by fall, so members spent the summer with renovations. They planned for including children and took out ads saying they had religious education. By the time fall came and services started, there were still ladders up and the work was almost, but not quite, done. The feeling of excitement raised everyone’s spirit and rubbed off on the new people who came with their children.

At that time, the Alsop Room served as the sanctuary, and the group didn’t yet have so much of the lovely space we enjoy now. That handful of families, though, made possible what we have today. Their vision led them to take risks and to leave a legacy of the safe haven and visible beacon that we still strive to grow into. It’s a story to provide inspiration as we go forward with our strategic planning.

Today’s leadership made a key decision to assess our current site to determine potential for future growth. You’ll hear more about the process and results over the next few months.

In the meantime, in keeping with this month’s theme, I invite you to recognize how our stories play into our understanding of our past, present and future.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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As the High Holy Days Approach

The Jewish High Holy Days arrive this month (Rosh Hashanah October 3-4 and Yom Kippur October 12). Each year, these holidays call Jews to consider where they have fallen short and to release those shortcomings to start again with a fresh slate. In the ritual of Tashlich, Jews cast breadcrumbs in a lake or stream, a symbol of releasing the sins they have committed over the past year.

The practice inspires me. A year, though, seems to me a long time for remembering and reflecting on shortcomings. My own list would be much too long! But the practice of regular self-evaluation seems tremendously valuable and fits with this month’s theme of healing. Such self-examination helps heal the wounds that exist and keeps us from inflicting additional injuries on ourselves and others.

I try to do a daily examen, where I reflect on the events of the day to see where I feel the presence of the holy, how I respond, and where I have turned away. Even though I don’t make it every day, the several times a week check-in is helpful in reminding me where I want to focus my attention and how I want to live in the world.

For me, it’s easy to get sidetracked. I can get drawn into wherever excitement pops up today. I can lose track of my own priorities and get sucked into stuff that has nothing to do with me. I can forget how much I have to be grateful for and instead, become resentful of the ways that my life disappoints me. I can overreact to my emotions, or stifle them, and find myself whittling away time at screens instead of savoring reality. Especially when I’m tired, stressed, or hungry, I can forget my best self and act in ways I later regret. I can hurt people I have no intention of harming.

None of this is worth beating myself up over, and I certainly don’t dwell on any of it. It’s more about living with awareness. The more I can become aware of what I am up to, the more I can be deliberate and mindful about it. And, one of the uses of having a regular check-in is to know that if I think about my failings at other times, I can let go, knowing that I have a designated time to reflect and now is not it. That daily examen reminds me of what I’m thankful for, and releases the negative stuff, like dropping the breadcrumbs into the water.

The world presents us with much uncertainty, from inside our own homes and workplaces to the places we know only on maps, like Syria. Most of it is entirely beyond our control, no matter what we tell ourselves. Yet, we get caught up in struggles with it. Why not devote just a little while to being more aware and in touch with our lives and what we do have control over, to try to improve the quality of what we have and what we are? That might well bring healing.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

 

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Theme-based Ministry

Welcome to theme-based ministry!

Each month we’ll focus on a broad theme that has resonance for Unitarian Universalists in our personal and spiritual lives. You can read about the theme in the newsletter, hear about it during Sunday services, and experience it in religious education. What’s more, we’ll be starting small groups called Chalice Circles to explore the themes at a deeper level.

Why make this change in our programming? The main goal is to deepen our experience together. We’ve been very good at breadth – many different activities for different interests. We have been so good at breadth that depth may have suffered. While choice is good and variety the spice of life, transformation requires focused attention. Our religion is not a hodgepodge of liberal feel-goodism, but a tool to enrich our lives so we become better people, prepared to create real change in our larger world.

How do we come to understand the values and ideals championed by our religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism? How do we live into these values and ideals to become the people we wish to be?

Other UU’s have been exploring these questions and have come up with the Soul Matters program, from which we will be drawing. It doesn’t dictate how we look at the themes or what we do on Sunday mornings, but provides resources to support our explorations. Plus, we’re engaging with these themes along with about 200 other UU congregations, including a few here in Kansas.

Our first theme (September) considers what it means to be a community of covenant. I remind you that our members have developed a covenant, which you can find at [http://uufm.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Covenant-right-relations.pdf].

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Celebrating the Non-Discrimination Ordinance

The pace of life can be so fast and the deluge of bad news so overwhelming that I forget to take the time to celebrate real victories.

Last week was such a win. As you probably know by now, the Manhattan City Commission approved the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and created a structure for enforcement. That makes Manhattan the third city in Kansas with these significant protections for LGBTQ people. A year ago, such a move couldn’t have been predicted.

What made it happen?

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” The change came because a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens made it happen. Specifically, members of the Flint Hills Human Rights Project organized and strategized, lobbied and negotiated, and motivated others to show up and argue for change. I worked with area pastors to make clear to the Commission that many religious people believe that religion is no excuse for discrimination.

I’m proud that many members of UUFM showed up at one of the many meetings where the issue was discussed. Several spoke or wrote to the City Commission movingly and strongly on the issue.

At UUFM, we are a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. It’s not only this particular issue. Last Tuesday, I went from the City Commission to a Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice-sponsored forum on the effects of Medicaid cuts. Again, thoughtful, committed members of UUFM were scattered through the audience.

It’s the same wherever I go in Manhattan. I always find UU’s engaged in the work of social justice. Sometimes, we don’t realize what a difference we are making as a group.

We care about the issues. We work to make bring change and to support existing efforts that are doing good. And sometimes, we get a real win. Like last Tuesday.

Let’s take the time to celebrate it.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Why Religion?

With all the opportunities for action in the world, all the ways you can learn new things, and all the organizations you could join or work with, why bother with religion? A variety of answers can be given.

Some people say religion provides a framework of beliefs to help understand and structure the world. Scriptures as diverse as the Vedas and the Christian and Hebrew Bible describe how the world works, how it began, and how it will end. In oral traditions, stories serve much the same function. People find meaning through the way they fit into the structures their religion posits.

Others say that religion dictates rituals, rites and practices to structure and regulate society. Often, hierarchies are created, order is affirmed, and gods are kept happy.

Others suggest that religion offers values and rules to follow in order to live an ethical and moral life. From Buddhism’s Five Precepts to Islamic Shari’ah to the Christian Sermon on the Mount, standards have been set that call people to ethical living.

And some claim religion allows like-minded people to gather in community to support one another.

There’s something to each of these views. The bottom line, for me, is that religion helps us cope with life. It gives us strength and perspective when we’re struggling to go on. It helps us navigate life’s confusion. It challenges us to grow into a better person every day. It provides companions along the way.

As more and more people identify as “nones,” no religion, I wonder where they do turn for comfort, challenge, meaning and community. I hope they find someplace as rich as Unitarian Universalism has been for me.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Summer at UUFM

Summer is full on here! Temps in the 90’s and 100’s can hardly be interpreted any other way.

Fortunately, at least in Manhattan, things slow down in the summer. It used to be that the fellowship closed in the summer! Those days are long past. The tradition of closing the church doors for the summer has almost disappeared among Unitarian Universalist churches, though for generations, that’s exactly what summer meant.   It’s been said that we were the only people God trusted enough to take the summer off.

The practice of a long, healthy vacation for UU ministers has not ceased. Most ministers take a combination of vacation and study leave that means a big chunk of lay-led services through the summer. That hasn’t been my practice. I prefer to spread my vacation and study leave throughout the year to have more presence in the fellowship through the summer and more short breaks through the year.

I will be taking vacation July 25 through August 7, backpacking and hiking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming and at Yellowstone with my partner. Touching base with nature nurtures my spirit, and I love adventures with Jane! While I’m gone, staff and leaders can be contacted in an emergency and will be able to contact a minister, if necessary.

So what else am I up to this summer? Planning and study for the coming year is a major thrust. Some of that involves work with staff, the Strategic Planning Committee, the Board, and the Sunday Services Committee.

But what’s really exciting?

I’m looking at how we will be using themes in the coming year to tie together various aspects of congregational life, including but not limited to Sunday services and religious education. We hope to launch small groups for discussion around the Soul Matters topics we’ll be drawing on. Come September, we’ll have a monthly theme to inform worship and much more. (Some of the topics we’ll explore: Covenant, Healing, Identity, Risk, Zest!)

If you’re interested in helping to get small groups going or in any other aspect of developing themes, I’d love to hear from you. There is a workshop in Topeka in August and we’ll have a good group of people attend to help us learn how to develop themes in our congregational life.

Have a great summer! It’ll be over before we know it.

Jonalu

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Grieving Justice

Two more African American men dead at the hands of police in circumstances where armed intervention looked unnecessary. The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in the suburbs of St. Paul remind us that #BlackLivesMatter still matters.

According to Julia Craven in The Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-people-killed-by-police-america_us_577da633e4b0c590f7e7fb17], six out of ten African American men report being unfairly treated by police. 6 out of 10. That’s the majority. And though more white men may be shot overall, black men are five times more likely to be shot by police than white men their age.

As shocking and horrifying as unnecessary deaths are, they are the tip of the iceberg in a system that sees black people, especially young black men, as criminals unless proven otherwise. In our own city, we see the racial disparities in marijuana arrests increasing as time goes by, as shown by the figures from the Manhattan Coalition for Equal Justice.

In this atmosphere, the recent Supreme Court decision (Utah v Strieff) limiting the Fourth Amendment guarantee against illegal searches and seizures appalls me. The court OK’d the idea that police may use evidence obtained from an illegal stop, if in the process of the stop they find a warrant out. Justice Sotomayor wrote a tough dissent that you might want to check out. In short, if police can use such evidence, there is nothing to limit illegal searches. Even though Strieff himself is white, this decision is particularly bad news for people of color, who are much more often the victims of illegal searches. I fear this case will increase illegal searches, and the racial disparities will skyrocket.

The Strieff decision demonstrates the tendency of the justice system to trust the police, even when they are in violation of the law, a violation the state of Utah admitted to! If the justice system is unable to protect people from the police, and if police are able to shoot to kill for little or no reason, none of us have real protections. And people of color are the most vulnerable.

I grieve for the pointless deaths. I am in sympathy with the families and friends. More and more, though, I also grieve for a justice system that is lost.

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Orlando: At the Intersection of Oppressions

What do GBLTQ people, Latin@s, and Muslims have in common? All of us are more afraid because of the shootings early Sunday morning in Orlando.

The selection of a gay nightclub on Latin Night as a terrorist target wove a complicated web to untangle.

A week earlier, the Orlando queer community had celebrated Pride. Suddenly, the exuberance and delight of Pride dissolved into shock, pain, sorrow and fear. An attack on a gay nightclub is not just an attack on a nightclub. Historically, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people found their identity in bars. The movement that grew out of Stonewall Inn in 1969 concentrated in bars and clubs. These were the safe spaces, the places people could be themselves without fear, or at least with less fear. (I could talk about the benefits and drawbacks of this history, but will check myself from that digression.) To have a gay bar attacked was a frontal assault on queer community. And when we say, “It could have been here; it could have been us,” we often say it with memories of other events – of beatings outside gay bars, of bars we know burned in arson attacks. All the past homophobic remarks and threats loom, triggered by the shootings.

Then, reading the list of names and looking at the faces projected across the internet reminds us how deeply affected the Latin community was. Ninety percent of the victims were Latino/a/x. Orlando, like all of Florida, has a strong Latin@ community, especially among Puerto Ricans, and it was Latin night at Pulse, with merengue and salsa and bachata. Of course, that attracted young Latino gay men, frequent objects not only of homophobia, but also of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, even those who are native-born. Latin@s, then, are grieving deeply.

This event also casts a shadow over Muslims in the middle of their Ramadan celebration. Once again, Islamic groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had to rush to distinguish themselves and ordinary Muslims from terrorists. Mir Seddique, the attacker’s father, proclaimed, “This had nothing to do with religion.” Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for the presidency proclaims the need to keep Muslims out of the country. And the argument goes on over the term “Islamic terrorism.”

The shooter himself seemed confused, at best, about Islamic ties, as he swore allegiance to groups that oppose one another. His motives are not easily discerned. Self-radicalized, he also has histories of domestic violence, mental illness and racism, in addition to his FBI interviews. Media are reporting that he may have been gay himself! Since he, too, is dead, the motives will be impossible to confirm definitively.

Different communities have different angles on the story. Different people with their mingled identities develop their own views. Sorting it all out will take months, if not years. We don’t even have a common label for this atrocity – hate crime, terrorist act, mass shooting. Each of the phrases holds its own connotations and nuance. Each carries its particular implications. We have to be careful as we read, as we listen, as we think, to understand where each may carry us. We have to be especially careful as we speak to say what we mean to say, and not to accidentally distort our ideas by speaking imprecisely.

For the moment, what we can do is mourn, comfort those who are mourning, and search for the courage to counter the fears we have so that we are not reacting to violence, but instead acting consciously and choicefully with love and compassion in our hearts and reason and nonviolent strategies focused in our minds. In that way, we will stand on the side of love with all the oppressed who have been touched by this horrific event.

As UUA President Peter Morales said, “May all people of good will, people of all faiths and no faith, renew our determination to end racism, end demonization of those of other faiths, end homophobia, and create a society where access to lethal weapons has some rational control. Otherwise we will wait helplessly for the next atrocity.”

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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