Earth Day 2016

This spring I’ve become aware of prairie burns. I knew they existed before; there were small burns where I lived previously in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. I had chuckled many times at the signs on Oklahoma highway: “Do not drive into smoke.” Never before, though, have I noticed such an intense smell of smoke in the spring. In childhood, I associated the smell of burning with fall, and now, my world has been turned upside down!

The burns, I learned, are necessary to benefit the livestock as well as the wild birds and to maintain the grasses, while shutting out invasive species. Fires prevent the use of chemical herbicides and help restore natural balance.

I had not realized how threatened the tall grass prairie was until I moved here. Ecosystems can be so vulnerable – so many moving parts. A tall grass prairie is much more than grass – it’s birds and bugs and bison and snakes and lizards, flowers and even the occasional tree. When one species thrives or fails, the whole system shifts a little. And when the prairie’s expanse is more and more limited, as it has been by human development, everything suffers.

Meanwhile, the world beyond the prairie has even more challenges. As temperatures increase, both storms and drought threaten. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, mild winters and intense summers feed our insecurities. Celebrating our connection with the earth becomes almost scary. Despite our technological ways of escaping the natural world, we cannot help but be reminded that we really are affected by the Earth.

How do we celebrate Earth Day this year? There’s little one person or family or congregation can do to keep the temperature increase under 2 degrees. We try our small ways – driving less, hesitating to turn on the A/C, buying things with less packaging, exhorting our elected representatives to create real change – but it seems way too little, way too late.

Maybe this year, we need to simply find the connection again. Consider what about the Earth speaks to you and immerse yourself in it, if only for a little while. Maybe that connection will work to sustain you, to remind you of your commitments to the Earth, and spark some natural wildness within you.

Happy Earth Day,

Jonalu

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Strategic. Planning. Committee.

Strategic. Planning. Committee.

Three words that people may find it hard to get excited about. Yet they’re very important to our future. We have an outstanding group of people looking at where we’ve been, where we are, and how we need to move to become the best UU Felllowship we can be.

Strategic planning requires an ability to set large goals and the interim goals to get there, but to be nimble in completing them. The committee recently brainstormed a list of things we might do that inspired and excited me. We can’t do it all, though! The strategy part comes in as we assess which particular actions are most likely to lead us closest to where we want to be. We’ll have to consider resources that might be available and the context of the community in which we find ourselves. We’ll have to think about who we include and who we might include. Strategic planning offers the next step of building on the vision statement that we have spent time thinking about over the last couple months. How do we become the safe haven, the incubator of the next generation of UU’s, the builders of bridges, the visible beacon of liberal religious messages of hope and meaning? How do we embrace and live out our values?

The questions may seem irrelevant to individual UU’s. But, really, each person has a role in this. Our fellowship does nothing independent of the members who comprise it. As the fellowship reflects on how it lives out Unitarian Universalism, you might ask yourself how you do the same task. How does inherent worth and dignity influence your choices? How about the interdependent web of life of which we are a part? How do you embody tolerance and compassion? What do you do to grow spiritually and help your children to?

I often tell people that Unitarian Universalism is not an easy religion. We don’t offer definitive answers. Instead, we encourage and nurture the questions and the search for the answers. You have to do the search yourself.

It’s not an easy religion, but if you put in the time and effort, it is a rewarding one.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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SPRING!

When I lived in Wisconsin, I was told it was bad luck to say farewell to winter, because it could always come back. As I write, the day is beautiful and sunny. By the time you read this, there’s no telling. Could be spring breezes. Could be snowstorms. The Farmers’ Almanac tells me the average last frost date here is April 20. We can’t expect this time of balance, of equinox, to go smoothly. It would be nice if each day were just a tad warmer and we could ease gently from winter to summer.

But that’s not how it works. Think of the year as a seesaw: in winter, there is a pause as one end touches the ground; when the other end touches down, it is summer. Spring, like fall, arrives when both ends are in mid-air. No one pauses there, unless they’re making trouble. Ironically, the point of balance is the most transitory, the most unstable point that there is. No wonder the weather fluctuates. Spring exists only as an in-between point.

In spring, we live in the midst of transition. That’s what transition is like – we know something’s changing, but can’t quite yet see the shape of what is to become. The time of transition may be a time we have felt the presence of death or depression, or when we have recognized a bad habit but not yet changed it. It can be falling in love or preparing to give birth. In transitions, we don’t know what to expect. Hope and fear compete for our attention. Our feelings bounce around unexpectedly, outside our control.

Like being in spring, all we can do is prepare ourselves for what may come, keep checking the environment to see if we need a coat or a T-shirt, an ice scraper or sunscreen. And enjoy what may come, as much as possible.

The 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote:

Long conversations 
beside blooming irises – 
joys of life on the road .

 

May your spring be full of joys of life on the road, along with the deep appreciation of them.

 

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Campaign Commentary

I hesitate to join the moaning and groaning over the Presidential campaign. However, the trends concern me deeply. Like Pope Francis, I won’t name names as I critique the tone and content of some of the Presidential candidates’ statements and the news coverage.

I wonder what it would be like if the media covered the issues more than the horserace. What if they presented clips of each of the candidates expressing their plans for health care, immigration, and Syria, perhaps a new issue each day? Instead of day after night of “This candidate is pulling ahead,” and “They’re neck and neck in the polls,” we could hear actual policy statements. Instead of feeling like we’re jumping on a bandwagon, or voting for someone who “has a chance,” we could base our decisions on issues without having to mine for position papers on websites.

It disheartens me that candidates have joined the focus on the competition instead of the issues. It used to be that you could count on stump speeches to include actual positions. Lately, I’m hearing more sound bites of “I’m better than he is.” Not only is this useless for people making up their minds about candidates, it undermines the democratic process by making the race about personality and popularity.

Then, there is the terrible pattern of name-calling and misrepresentation of other candidates and their positions. These practices debase not only the candidates who are attacked, but also the people launching the attacks. It’s perfectly OK to explain what you think is unworkable in a candidate’s platform. These issues and positions can be debated with integrity. Stepping over the line into personal attacks, much less outright lies, simply isn’t called for and should not be part of the process.

These trends upset me because democracy could be so much better. It feels like the American people are responding to messages with knee-jerk reactions, precipitated more by fear than logic. People’s fears are real – the middle class is hollowing out, racism continues to thrive, technology and globalization have complicated our lives. The problem is – how do we respond? What will be helpful in the long term? We need to turn away from emotional reactivity to acknowledge complexities and subtleties and work together, across divisions of party, race, gender, and religion to find realistic solutions.

Some politicians and policy wonks are quietly doing this demanding work. I want to find all ways possible to support that effort. They will yield compromises, but that is the nature of good politics. Much better than the big politics that currently bombards us.

In the meantime, the caucuses are next week, and we have to do our best. Good luck out there.

 

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Commitment to Change

When UUFM chose to recruit a Developmental Minister rather than go through a regular search process for a minister, the Fellowship committed to change. The particular goals you deve- loped were to become more involved in the community, to accept ministerial leadership, and to grow in membership. It’s one thing to say we want change and another to make it happen. If you made New Years resolutions that have already gone by the wayside, then you have an idea of how hard change really is.

Our patterns and habits as individuals get wired into our brains. Popular thinking has it that new habits take twenty- one days to become established. Wrong! Scientific studies say it takes quite a bit longer, at least a couple of months generally, though there’s a lot of variability.

How much more complicated, then, is it for a system like a congregation to make change?

In our Fellowship, we’re experimenting with a lot of things– more music in services, a gathering song to bring people together, expanding involvement and recognition of our role in the community, varying how and whether we do discus- sion in services, adding some options for adult religious edu- cation, and beginning in February, moving coffee hour to the Alsop Room. These small changes shake things up a little so that we quit habits that may be done without awareness. We won’t know if there might be better ways if we keep doing things a particular way only because it’s familiar and comfortable. Change invites reflection about why we do what we do.

Making change requires looking at our environment and practices with new eyes. What would this look and feel like to someone who had never seen it before? Not only does this help us become more hospitable to guests, but it also can improve the experience and ambience for us all.

When change is going on around you, consider taking a new look. You might find you want to rearrange your old habits.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Who Does Our Congregation Serve?

In our service on January 10, I invited people to consider both who they as individuals serve and also, who we as a congregation serve and who we might serve.

The members make up the congregation, and to some extent, the members are who are served. But any institution that serves only its own members is narcissistic in the same way as a person in love with themself.

Robert Greenleaf, who has devoted his career to servant leadership, wrote an essay called, “The Institution as Servant.” In it, he explains:

This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/

So, institutions, too, must become servants. The congregation, for example, needs to understand its role in service in the world. This fellowship does service that might be unexpected for its size. Last Friday, I joined with a few others and served breakfast at Happy Kitchen. Since I often find the service I do abstract, or based in words — speaking, writing, or listening –, to do something concrete as service, cooking eggs, washing dishes, serving food, is rewarding. To see the people who eat and their appreciation for having a hot breakfast touches me. And to do it with people from the congregation I serve moves and inspires me.

I am convinced that congregations that are internally focused, thinking mostly about themselves, do not ultimately have staying power. They are social clubs rather than change agents. I don’t think that is true of this congregation, but there is always more that can be done.

Who should we serve? Those who need it most — always, we want to consider how our decisions affect those who are least privileged in our society. Someone in the congregation also suggested the need for us to serve the earth. Indeed, that’s consistent with our values and principles. Service turns us outward rather than inward and makes us a better congregation and better people.

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January

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, the heal the broken, the free the prisoners, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among (siblings), to make music in the heart.

These words from African American minister Howard Thurman challenge us to move from December to January, from the Christmas season to constructive work to make the world more like we long for it to be. The Gandhi-King-Gyatso Season for Non-violence doesn’t begin until the end of the month, but the Unitarian Universalist “30 Days of Love” kick off on January 16, with racial justice being this year’s theme.

The problem of realizing social justice is so huge that working at it can discourage us. My reaction often is, “Haven’t I already done this?” Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned – all of these are literally endless tasks. Even making significant social change – agitating for civil rights for all people without regard for race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity; working for the elimination of poverty through living wages and adequate social supports; creating support systems to help people escape domestic violence, sexual slavery, or addiction – so many of these efforts seem to be two steps forward, one step back, demanding continual attention to hold onto any small gains achieved. How do we maintain our commitment to making a difference?

There are some ways to diminish discouragement. One is to do the work together. Together, we have more ideas and more power. We support one another, reassure each other in times of failure, celebrate together in times of victory, and strategize together in times of confusion. The work – and it is work – is much easier with more hands. Another strategy is to recognize the difficult changes that have already come. Same sex marriage, once unimaginable, is now legal. Women and people of color, though still without economic parity, have many more opportunities than even fifty years ago. Voting rights, though under attack, are more universal than they once were. Environmental awareness has increased, as pollution as decreased, even if we still find ourselves overly dependent on fossil fuels. When we can see ourselves as part of a long line of people striving for justice, then we can find a confidence that our modest efforts, in the long run, are worth it.

We aren’t all able to have an earth-shattering impact. But our small daily efforts matter. Maybe it’s educating our children about equality, offering kindness to a stranger, writing a small check, or volunteering a few hours. As we move into the New Year, perhaps our resolutions can focus not only on personal improvements, but also on how we want to make a difference in the world.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

As you probably know, a group of religious leaders in Manhattan has gone on record with the City Commission supporting an ordinance to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Here is what the letter read at the December 1 meeting says:

Distinguished Commissioners:

As religious leaders, our traditions and denominations have different theological positions about many matters, including some of the specifics around sexual orientation and gender identity. One thing we can agree on, though, without equivocation, is that neither gender identity nor sexual orientation justifies discrimination in employment or public accommodation.

While same-sex marriage is now legal, there are still areas of equality that need to be addressed. When the state threatens to find gay men and lesbians unfit as parents, simply based on their sexual orientation, we can be sure that discrimination is alive and has not been driven underground. Yet, no federal or state law prohibits that kind of treatment. There are also no federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring practices or housing. LGBT people can still be fired simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We feel the need to speak out on this issue because religion is often cited as a justification for discriminatory action against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens. Our religious values oppose such bias and judgment, encouraging instead adherence to the principle of love for neighbor. Discrimination justified by religion is still discrimination.

We appreciate that Manhattan has implemented a policy to prohibit hiring discrimination for city employees due to sexual orientation, but more needs to be done. Other Kansas cities have created ordinances to provide protections which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We can, and should, do the same. We urge attention to this by our City Commission.

Thirteen ministers and pastors have signed the letter to date, and we are seeking more. If you missed the local media coverage, you can see the TV report here: http://ksnt.com/2015/12/04/manhattan-pastors-ask-for-anti-discrimination-ordinance/.

Of course, we recognize that more needs to be done than simply saying change must happen. This will likely be a lengthy and time-consuming effort that will involve much more than the religious community. Let me know if there are ways you would like to help.

In faith and freedom,
Jonalu

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Peace on Earth?

Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all.

That’s what the story says the angel proclaimed. This season, peace on earth grows ever more elusive. When I originally wrote this column for the newsletter, the Paris attacks and Beirut bombing had not yet faded from our awareness. The immediate response to the events in Paris was increased bombing of Syria by the French. Meanwhile, shouts rang out for our own country to take a stronger stance against the Islamic State.

Since then, we have witnessed a shooting at a women’s health center and an office holiday party. Earlier, we saw white supremacists shoot at demonstrators in Minneapolis. Guns, death, hatred. We seem surrounded.

At the same time, many of our leaders, including our own governor, have reacted against the most vulnerable, calling for the exclusive of Syrian refugees from our country. It’s not the first time that anti-immigrant sentiment has arisen, of course. We Americans have long been cautious about immigrants who were seen as “not like us,” – Asian, African, Hispanic, even Jewish refugees before World War II. But how ironic, that as we celebrate the poor wandering couple who found no place at the inn, that we would push others away.

Religions across time and place have called for peace. In ancient times, the prophet Jeremiah decried people who said “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. The prophet Jesus was supposed to be the Prince of Peace. There are peace Buddhas and peace gods.

At the same time, religions have been at the center of conflict through the ages. Conquest flowered with the conspiracy between states and religious leaders not only in Christianity and Islam, but in Buddhism and Hinduism as well. From the Crusades to the Islamic State, people have used religious ideology to declare their own cultural superiority and to crush those different from themselves.

So, how do we present an alternative view? As religion has inspired war, so it can inspire peace. I’ve come to believe that we need to take seriously even suggestions that seem outlandish and impossible. We must because what else is there to do but build an alternative worldview?
What if we were to add a Department of Peace to our federal institutions of Department of Defense (which could be re-named the Department of War) and Homeland Security? What if we took peace-keeping and peace-making as seriously as making war? What if we learned and taught non-violent compassionate communication and peaceful resolution of conflict on the small scale – in schools, in religious institutions, in community organizations like Scouts?

Maybe this season of Christmas could be a time of peace-seeking and peace-making, a time to remember the high price of conflict and to find a new way.

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.

In faith and freedom,
Jonalu

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Letter from Rev. David Carter

November, 2015
Dear Members and Friends of UUFM,

Warm regards and best wishes to all.
Over the last few weeks, having corresponded productively with several UUFM congregants to discuss their concerns regarding my references to autism in my sermon of Oct 25th, I now believe that additional good will come from my sharing with the larger community of congregants the value I received from those exchanges.
First, because I didn’t make it sufficiently clear in my sermon, please let me clarify an important point. I do not believe, nor did I intend to convey, that autism predisposes a person to antisocial behavior. Neither do I believe that persons with autism pose a threat to society.
Rather, I intended to convey a value I hold. Namely, that restorative practices and best therapeutic interventions should be the standard for all troubled persons who behave in destructive and/or antisocial ways. Moreover, even if and when persons are discovered to be obsessively contemplating or preparing to carry out antisocial acts, the response ought to proceed along lines of due process and be centered in restorative practices aimed at healing.
Therefore, my argument was/is that whenever and wherever possible, compassionate and just interventions, restorative practices, and therapy ought to be the universal response to antisocial behavior. Of course, that standard should not be reserved for a privileged few. And, in my sermon, I averred that Black Lives Matter is a critically important response to the odious double standard that has been cruelly applied to people of color in America for centuries.
Nevertheless, brought about by the necessity of carefully reviewing my sermon to understand why people had expressed misgivings, I had a breakthrough, an “aha” moment. Here is my realization:
People seemed to accept my passionate declaration that gross incomprehension of other people’s intrinsic worth and dignity does not excuse or condone crimes of violence against them. But important questions were raised as a result of my not adequately disambiguating two very different phenomena upon which I touched in my sermon.
The first is what I perceive to be “learned” incomprehension; i.e., white supremacist ideologies that inculcate “incomprehension” of the fact that black lives matter by demoting people of color to insensate chattel and thereby “justifying” acts of atrocity against them. The second is the incomprehension of social cues associated with autism, a complex neurological condition that runs along a spectrum; a phenomenon about which, admittedly, I know little. Of course the two are worlds apart.
Sadly, though, my awareness of that distinction and my sensitivity to its significance was not made sufficiently clear to my audience when I spoke, ergo, the justifiable concern expressed by several in attendance.
Naturally, I regret any and all unintended distress or confusion my words caused. And I am deeply grateful for the dialogue. Through it, I was able to move beyond egoistic defensiveness rooted in fear and wind up inhabiting the space in which learning occurs. I finally “got it.” I realized why there were objections and misgivings and feel grateful for the dialogues that ensued and brought understanding. Of course, if any think that further dialogue is necessary or will be helpful, that is most welcome.

Yours in the faith we share,
Rev. David Carter

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