Category Archives: From The Minister

Stirring the Soup – May 2017

Well, if the calendar hadn’t already let you know, the roars of Bike Week surely did: “The Season” is at hand. Since I moved here two years ago and have been all the way through this cycle now, I’m often asked whether I prefer the quiet of winter to the rush and bustle of the shoulder- and high-season months. The truth is I like them both. How about you?

Living in downtown Manteo, the hush of an early winter morning offers a serene start to the day, and the stillness of the evening streets a peaceful ending. And of course the tranquility (between stormy days) of the beach and Sounds in the quiet months is a deeply restorative pleasure. Yet there are days when I miss the sound of voices drifting up as crowds wander the shops, evenings when I’m impatient for a favorite restaurant (or frozen custard stand) to reopen, afternoons when I wish I could wade into that beckoning and beautiful water without going numb to the knees.

In summer, the bright colors and sun-struck faces of the visitors parading as if for my benefit below my balcony are a delight; the wealth of places to spend an hour or two in company and the bounty of activity our home unpacks for the incoming crowds give me endless opportunities for pleasure as well. There’s the feel of water under the kayak, or the waves making my body weightless; there’s the joy of welcoming the summer visitors who choose to spend part of their precious week with us on Sunday. Yet I grumble over the longer time it takes to get anywhere, the need to adapt my Saturday plans, or the lines at the favorite year-round haunts I can stroll into at a moment’s notice in winter.

The seasons of our community life here, like the seasons of our own life, are a steady flow of mixed blessings. Most of the time, what makes the difference is which way I choose to turn my attention. When I’m at my best, I recognize that I can’t have one aspect of life without welcoming its necessary companion: No triumph without struggle; no growth without change; no love without loss; no joy without sorrow.

We are whole beings, living a finite life touched with delights we wish could last forever. May the gentle rhythms of our seasonal home remind us always to greet each day in appreciation and gratitude, loving what is, seeking always to nurture and increase the joy, bounty, and love in the world for ourselves and for all our traveling companions on life’s journey.

In faith, David

Stirring the Soup – April 2017

Sometimes, the column you’d like to write isn’t the one that needs writing.  I’d like to write something poetic about the resurgence of life in Spring.  Or something inspiring about how important our financial support for the congregation is in this pledge-drive month.

But I find myself unable to step around recent events in our beloved Unitarian Universalist Association.  I’ve shared some information on our Facebook page and from the pulpit about the recent storm of voices calling out a persistent culture that reinforces white supremacy in the most senior levels of our Unitarian Universalist Association’s hired staff.  The recognition that all five of the Regional Leads who supervise the UUA’s nationwide Congregational Life staff are white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, ordained clergy, and a recent hiring which reinforced that status quo, have led a number of leaders among our UU people of color communities to break silence.  They have called out what they have experienced as an unyielding white dominance in the professional leadership of our Association.  In an Association which has publicly committed ourselves to becoming a model of multiracial, multicultural, anti-oppressive community, this has been a jolting and painful moment.

So far, this controversy has led UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales to resign, and two other senior staff leaders have announced their departure within the next couple of months.  The UUA Board of Trustees, the UU Ministers’ Association, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, the UU Musicians’ Network, and many others have joined with the leaders of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (a national umbrella organization for UU people of color), and a coalition of Latinx leaders in calling for change.  The remaining senior staff leaders have committed to search out and change systemic procedures that reinforce the white domination built into any institution like ours, born in the age of slavery in an America that defined human worth by whiteness.

And still change may not happen.  The powers and structures that reinforce white supremacy are pervasive and strong, and they are made insidious by their invisibility to those of us they were designed to benefit.  A new time of learning is called for.  Those same leadership voices in our movement are asking us to set aside our usual Sunday worship on Sunday, May 7th in favor of a one-day “teach-in” called #uuwhitesupremacy.  It’s a bold, somewhat unnerving, and, to me, compelling call.  So far, over 200 congregations have signed on.  I’ll be exploring the possibility with our Program Committee.

The forces of dominance and division we want to resist in the world around us have a foothold in all parts of American life, including those we love the most.  One of the things that makes our Unitarian Universalist faith and congregations so precious to me and many others (yes, precious enough to support financially, too!) is our willingness to acknowledge the places where those forces have distorted our own lives and to treat them, not as marks of inescapable human depravity, but as opportunities for growth and transformation.  In that sense maybe we’re a springtime faith after all, trusting in the immense power of new hope, new life, new love, and new wisdom to guide us toward the world we seek to create together.  It’s good to share the journey with you.

In faith,
David

Stirring the Soup – March 2017

There’s an old story about a famous minister, a lion of the great Social Gospel movement who once said that he prepared his sermons with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.  Aside from the difficulty of writing anything down under those circumstances, it’s a good strategy for times like these.  But it’s not quite enough.

As I plan for one of our Sunday services, I hope to maintain the delicate, dynamic balance of grounding ourselves in the deepest and most profound realities of our existence—what I call the Sacred, which is not restricted to the pages of the Bible or any other single sacred text—while always staying aware of the demanding events of the world that we’re living in.  At the same time, I try not to forget that along with the swirling turbulence of the public square, we are all trying simply to live our real, sometimes wonderful and sometimes messy lives with integrity, joy, and love as best we can, a task which continues at all times and in all events.

That’s as it should be.  It’s not a burden, but a wonder and a gift that ours is a faith explicitly devoted to the wholeness of life.  There’s no aspect of human existence that we think is unworthy of thoughtful, compassionate, and even reverent consideration.  There’s no division between sacred and secular, divine and mundane.  All life is infused with holiness, if we choose to recognize and embrace it.

A commitment to the wholeness of life feels very important right now.  One of the strategies of authoritarians (domestic as well as public) is to create such constant chaos that people find themselves looking at the dominant personality all the time, interpreting every experience through the lens of the authority figure.  The foundation of all resistance is refusing to let the authority figure dominate our attention.  We work for what we know is right; we resist what we know is wrong; above all, we live our whole lives as if they matter—because they do.  Walks in the rain, the laughter and tears of children, the opening of an art exhibit, the delight of new love or the warmth of long companionship, the pleasure of good food, the comfort of long-held traditions—all this and more is the real fabric of our life.  Just as with any kind of terrorism, if we let the richness of our lives be diminished and directed by those seeking power, we have surrendered.

Our whole life is precious and deserves our devoted engagement—our relationships, our work, our pleasures, our struggles and losses, the beauties we find and the hurts we sustain and seek to heal.  The justice and compassion we seek to advance in the world is worthy too, and it is part of our one and precious life.  May we celebrate all of life’s wholeness together.

In faith,

David

Stirring the Soup – February 2017

As I thought about the service marking the 30th anniversary of our congregation’s chartering in January of 1987, connecting it with the idea of a “Service of the Living Tradition” to echo the one at the UUA’s General Assembly each year, I found myself reflecting on what it means for our larger community that there is a Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks. What’s our role as part of the religious and spiritual landscape of this home of ours?

Many UU congregations refer to themselves as “beacons” in the regions where they’re located. “A Beacon of Liberal Religion,” they might say; “A Beacon of Free Faith” or “A Spiritual Beacon of Freedom, Reason, and Acceptance” in their community. Aside from its connections to Beacon Hill, home of our Association’s Boston Headquarters for many years, and to the image of the Flaming Chalice lighting the search for truth, I like the “beacon” metaphor because it conveys hospitality, guidance, and caution all at the same time. A beacon shines out in invitation and promise that a welcome will be found; it offers assistance for those charting their own course, and it may help guard against the danger of foundering against known hazards on the journey. All appropriate to the life and work of a religious community!

What would it mean for us to be a beacon of liberal religion in the Outer Banks? In a sense we already are; as in many UU congregations, those who find their way to our door often speak of gratitude to discover a place where they are accepted and embraced as they are, where their spiritual search is honored, and where they’re invited to continue on the path in good company. But does our light shine brightly enough for all to see? I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t people we haven’t met yet who would be as glad as we are, as glad as I was myself once, to learn that religion doesn’t have to mean what we thought it did—back when we decided that it wasn’t for us. People who need the gifts of religious and spiritual community, but who think there’s no place where their way of being religious would be welcomed. Do we shine brightly enough for them to see?

In a time when intolerance, unreason, and lack of compassion seem to be driving forces in our public life, when an illiberal vision is dominating the national climate, being a beacon of free faith seems very important to me. I hope we’ll find more and more ways in the days to come to let our light shine. Let’s share the “good news” of a religion that trusts in Love, works for Justice, honors a free quest for Truth, and celebrates the whole tapestry of an undivided Human Family. We are needed, and we are ready.

In faith,

David

Stirring the Soup – January 2017

It’s about four days before New Year’s Eve as I write this, and a lot of people I know are looking forward to the end of 2016 with an unusual amount of pleasure.  It’s true; there have been some tough developments this year.  Yet there have also been all the ordinary and extraordinary events of any year of life and history, in our own lives and in the wider world.  There have been things to celebrate, even if we sometimes find it hard to remember what they are.  We may feel very reasonably that there’s much to dread in the coming year, and yet we must remember that it will also be a year in which life brings joy as well as sorrow, celebration as well as mourning.

On New Year’s Day at UUCOB, we’ll share a ritual of remembrance and release, when I hope we’ll all lift up both the positive events and the challenges of the year that’s ending, and then turn to our hopes and commitments for the year to come.  I’ve found it’s a satisfying and sometimes healing thing to take an honest look at what’s gone by, to avoid an oversimplified summing-up that puts the past in a box and pretends it was all one thing or another. Life is never simple enough to pin down with a one-note evaluation.

One thing seems clear:  We will need to care for ourselves in the coming year, and to connect with our own sources of strength, courage, hope, and commitment.  If the future demands resistance and resilience in the face of threats to marginalized people and to principles of justice, equity, and compassion that we hold dear, we’ll all need to nurture our own resources if we hope to stay engaged and effective.  Our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being are not luxuries, even in the best of times; in times of struggle we need them more than ever.

I’m particularly conscious of relationships as we enter 2017.  I know I share with many others a common tendency in times of stress to focus inward, and I think that’s the last thing we need right now.  We need one another, in personal networks and in connections among groups and communities.  Who are the people who strengthen you, encourage you, enrich and enlarge your life?  Now’s a good time to tend and deepen those connections.  Who are the communities in the Outer Banks that allow us at UUCOB to reach beyond our own walls and daily lives to help the moral arc of the Universe bend toward justice and compassion?  Now’s a good time for us to consider and build those relationships.

I wish you, I wish us all, a New Year rich in the joys, beauties, and loves of life.  And as life confronts us with difficulties, may we rise to the occasion, knowing that we are never alone, knowing that love is stronger than hate, and justice is stronger than oppression.  And this year as always, may we seek to be among the ones who make it so.
In faith,

David

Stirring the Soup – December 2016

Oh, wreaths and lights and Advent calendars. . .

The other day, watching the lights go up in Manteo and thinking about getting out that first box of early Christmas decorations, a pre-­‐Spirit Scrooge in the back of my mind muttered: “I don’t much feel like celebrating this year. Humbug.” Have you had any moments like that?

But it occurs to me that the celebrations of this time of year are not necessarily meant to arise out of an uncomplicated spirit of jollity, which can be hard to sustain in the face of life’s challenges or through inclement moments in the public climate. Many of the myths and symbols we embrace so lightheartedly had their origin as stories and experiences of endurance through strife and suffering, of hope arising out of ashes. The evergreens, holly, and mistletoe of Solstice proclaim that life prevails through the austerity of winter’s cold; Hanukkah lights commemorate a religious revival after a time of persecution and desecration; Christmas carols sing tidings of comfort and joy for the birth of hope in the hardest of times, in the most unlikely of places; Kwanzaa candles honor the values and fierce resistance that have sustained the communities of the African diaspora against the worst inhumanities imaginable.

The lights we kindle in this darkest time of the year are not mere nostalgia and aesthetics. They shine forth an insistent declaration of dedication to hope, no matter what comes. They promise that new life is gestating in the darkness, and they affirm that faithful commitment to human kinship, generosity of spirit, and the power of love will sustain us through the hardest of seasons.

In easy times these values can degenerate into sentimentality. In hard times, we remember that they are core ideals that call us to bring our best to life. They tell the world that we are fully committed to bringing life, hope, love, and justice into being in the world, and that we are not alone in continuing to tell this tale of the unfolding future of our one precious human family.

Light the lights; put up the greens; send the cards; bring comfort to the sorrowing and the oppressed. Joy is not just a happy feeling; it is an act of hope and love.

In faith,
David

A Pastoral Letter from our Minister

November 9, 2016

Dear friends,

Last night, I spent hours watching election returns with friends.  We reassured one another as we parted that there is hope to be found in commitment to our cherished values, and that there will be work for us to do as people of faith.  Back home I spent hours listening to the voices of admired and beloved colleagues and friends on Facebook, and they were tired, discouraged, afraid—yet faithful, and determined.

We have had an election which many of us believe will have catastrophic consequences for our country.  It is tempting to spend our energy assigning blame. To me that is a distraction.  Although this election’s results have many causes, they have unmistakably revealed that many Americans live in fear of people they have been taught to see as a threat to their way of life.  Assigning blame will not alleviate their fear, nor will it protect the most vulnerable in the coming few years, nor will it ease our broken hearts.

It is tempting, as Dorothy Day says, “to sit down and feel hopeless.”  But once we’re past our initial shock, that response won’t serve either.  While we hope that President-Elect Trump will make a sincere attempt to govern for the benefit of all Americans, there is ample reason to believe we will see policies and programs which threaten harm to individuals, to marginalized groups, and to the fabric of American democracy.  Those of us who live with a greater measure of safety corresponding to our own privilege will be called to resist those policies and protect their intended and unintended targets.

We have work to do: healing divisions, defending our most cherished values, and protecting the vulnerable.  But until we know what shape that work will take, our first task is coming to terms with the reality that is in front of us.

First, please care for yourself and for those you love.  Take the time to allow yourself to be angry, hurt, afraid, disappointed, numb, sad—whatever you are feeling right now, find space to let it be.  Be kind and gentle with your own heart.  Remember to eat, drink, and get sleep.  Don’t feel obliged to watch, read, or hear reams of analysis.  Reach out to people you suspect are sharing some of your feelings and let them know they’re not alone, even as you remind yourself that you’re not alone either.

Second, please engage with the sources of your spiritual and emotional well-being.  Give yourself the gift of healing activities or practices—prayers, beautiful words or music, walks in a favorite place, meditation, yoga—whatever helps you be in touch with your own soul and center.  Each of us has resources far beyond our solitary capacities and skills.  Remember that every moment is temporary, and that the crisis of the moment is an invitation to creativity.

Finally, I encourage you to remember that those who are most vulnerable need to know right now that they have allies who will “have their back” in these frightening times.  I invite you to find your own way to express this thought shared last night by Tennessee UU minister the Rev. Laura Bogle:  “I want to say to my Muslim, black, queer, bi, trans, many gendered, Asian, Latino, immigrant, beautifully diverse siblings: I will keep doing my best to create a United States where you are safe, valued and loved.”

I am grateful every day to have this spiritual community to call home.  In each other’s good company we share and serve what I believe to be the most precious, most sacred values of human life:  compassion, justice, community, and the freedom to seek Truth together.  In the days to come, may we have the courage to reaffirm our highest values, and to help one another as we work to make them real in the world.  We are not alone.  No one is alone.

In love and faith,

David

Stirring the Soup – November 2016

This time of year, lots of church newsletter columns are about gratitude.  There’s plenty of information out there about the power of gratitude to improve our daily experience, our sense of well-being, even our health.  Perhaps because a lot of my Facebook friends are ministers, my feed often includes helpful suggestions for a daily gratitude practice: Keep a “gratitude journal;” start each day with a prayer of thanks; find a way to be grateful for the challenges and redirections life provides so generously. . . .

I’ve always felt a sort of passive approval of these.  They’re nice, but they seem a little. . . well, earnest, a little self-consciously virtuous.  Of course gratitude is important.  Of course we should take the time to stop and reflect on things we’re grateful for.  Of course I should stop and notice when a precious moment’s experience comes my way.  But do I really need a structured, daily practice?

This year, I’m going to try one.  So much of the news of the day is urging me in the opposite direction.  Politics, global conflict, environmental warning signs, the steady coarsening of the national conversation, the increasing visibility of racial disparity and anti-LGBTQ backlash—all this and more create a basic climate of dissatisfaction and discouragement that makes the vicissitudes of everyday life seem even more challenging than usual.  It’s a good time to be intentional about reversing the trend.   As Joanna Macy says, when the culture is dominated by the marketing of discontent, gratitude is a radical, countercultural act of reaching toward what we love.

Neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher Rick Hanson points out research demonstrating that the human brain reacts more to a negative experience than to an equally intense positive one.  We learn faster from pain than pleasure, and negative experiences dwell in our memories longer than positive ones.  If you happen to be walking the savannah day and night in a state of constant vigilance for the next threat, these are very important adaptations for the survival of the species.  For the world we live in now, however, they’re no longer quite so helpful.  They create an underlying tendency to dwell on the negative and minimize the positive.  You can see why it might take more than just good intention to remember to be grateful.

So I’m going to try on one of those intentional gratitude practices.  Through the month of November, I’m going to take time at my writing desk each evening to write down three things from the day that I’m grateful for:  An experience; something I’ve seen, heard, or felt; an interaction with another person; an insight from the day’s events.  Three things, every day, before I go to bed.  I’m not going to post about it on Facebook; it’s for my own well-being and that of the people I meet, interact with, and care about.

I invite you to consider trying on a practice of your own.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not silly to insist on finding something healing in a time too full of fearfulness.  In fact, it’s an act of courage and hope.

In faith,

David

 

Stirring the Soup – October 2016

A few weeks ago, North Carolina UU ministers shared a daylong conversation about a tough topic:  Clergy sexual misconduct.  We gathered in response to an essay delivered by our colleague the Rev. Dr. Gail Seavey at this year’s UUA General Assembly.  We reflected and spoke about our own emotions on hearing and reading the essay, on our awareness and experiences of misconduct as an issue affecting congregations we have served, and on wider issues about ministerial ethics, collegial support, accountability, and the harm secrecy does in congregational life.

Rev. Seavey’s essay, “If Our Secrets Define Us,” was in part, an account of forty years of our Association’s responses to misconduct, particularly when ministers have engaged in romantic and sexual relationships with adult congregants.  It was a forthright and sometimes painful presentation, and it raised challenging issues – from our own personal experiences to the history of changing social and sexual mores in the U.S. over the past 50 years; from the harmful effects of secrecy to the risks of openness about unsettling experiences in our congregations.  For some it was liberating; for others it was disturbing; for a few it felt like a personal indictment for behavior that was widely considered acceptable at the time.

For me both the essay and the conversation last month were powerful reminders of how tender and holy a minister’s relationships with and within a congregation are.  We are charged to live out our faith in action, trying to be a public representative (not just an advocate) for human wholeness.  We are given the extraordinary privilege of accompanying people in the most joyful and the most traumatic events of their lives, and exploring with them the deepest meanings of events in the world around us and in our everyday experiences.  It’s a sacred trust, and that’s why the ethics surrounding a minister’s role and relationships are so vital.  It’s in order to protect that sacred trust that our ethical guidelines warn against ministers ever dating congregation members and friends, and instruct us that while we can be friends with members, our closest, most intimate friendships should be found outside our congregations.

When violations of ethical guidelines occur, the effects in congregations are divisive and durable, and are often made worse by a reflexive secrecy, creating pockets of insiders who know the “whole story” but fear to share it because that might create conflict – as if the unacknowledged conflicts aren’t already present.  That’s why you’ll hear me advocate for honest, open, and direct communication as the best way to ensure that a congregation lives with our conflicts and histories in a healthy way.

Just in case I’ve worried you, all of this isn’t to warn that some kind of landmine or bombshell is on the way.  I’ve simply been reminded by stories of the grief that transgressions have caused how important it is for us all to clearly understand the ethical boundaries that are woven into and guide my relationships with you as individuals and as a community.  The role you have entrusted to me in the life of this community is a priceless gift.  I’m grateful for it, and I want you to know how precious it is to me.

Your minister,

David

Stirring the Soup – September 2016

For most Unitarian Universalist communities, summer is a time for “slowing down.”  Colleagues across the country (including me, up until last year) take most of their vacation and study leave consecutively in the summer, and are often out of the pulpit for 6 or 7 weeks in a row.  Congregations take breaks from regular programs and downshift to one service if they usually have two; a few, especially in small college towns, even suspend services for a few weeks.  Attendance drops as members and friends take advantage of school holidays to travel to vacation places, visit family and friends far away, see their favorite national parks.

Not here:  Those people leaving other places are coming here.  We’re not too relaxed to keep up the regular schedule; we’re too busy—with jobs that ramp up in summer, special events, and the influx of beloved family and friends spending time with us here in our special, beautiful place. A few things go on summer hiatus, but our services continue to enjoy strong attendance and even an increase in visitors during July and August.  My own Sunday service schedule stayed constant at two or three a month.

Yet September still feels like the beginning of the “church year” to me.  Part of this is the habit of the school year, begun in my long-ago childhood and reinforced by my years as a music teacher and then in college textbook publishing.  Part is the internalized rhythm of U.U. customs like the “Ingathering” service on Labor Day weekend when we share the Water Communion’s symbolic celebration of community.  So, like many others, we start our reckoning of the year in September with a new event calendar, a few changes to the Sunday Order of Service, some new classes and programs in mind.

I’m excited about this second year of my ministry with you.  I’m looking forward to continuing to share leadership with such a strong group of engaged and committed folks, to finding even more collaborative ways to keep our Sunday services rich and meaningful whether I’m in the pulpit or not, to teaching and sharing new classes and experiences outside of Sunday mornings, to strengthening our ministry to families with children, and to thinking together about the dimensions of our outreach and service to the larger community of the Outer Banks.  I’m especially looking forward to celebrating the 30th anniversary of this wonderful spiritual community in ways large and small.

How about you?  What are you looking forward to, as the new “church year” begins?  Where do you see yourself engaging in our community life, and what are your hopes for the life of our congregation this year?  I encourage you to bring your whole self—your hopes, dreams, needs, gifts, struggles, longings, visions, and commitments—into the nurturing, sustaining circle of our life together. Together, we make life better—for ourselves, for each other, for the community around us, and for the wider world.

In faith,

David