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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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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