Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon – Right Speech 3.4.18

Right Speech
Rev. David A. Morris
UU Congregation of the Outer Banks
March 4, 2018

During the 2016 elections and since, it was not unusual to hear people, including the man who was elected President of the United States, say that “political correctness” was ruining the country.  One component of the American population was often portrayed in news accounts as being attracted to the current President because they were tired of political correctness, and they were glad finally to have a leader who encouraged them to speak their minds, like he did.

In the public discourse of the news media about “political correctness,” there’s a pretty consistent narrative that many people feel they have been silenced in our country for too long, and that finally they have been given the power to speak their minds freely once again.  

The words of Emma Gonzalez, one of the young people who survived America’s latest slaughter of innocents at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, remind us of who has really been silenced in our country.  

A few months ago I was privileged to stand with a few hundred other people of faith from all over the country in front of the headquarters of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Virginia, bearing witness to the fifth anniversary of the slaughter of toddlers and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  One of the speakers was my colleague the Rev. Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where ten years ago this July a gunman walked into church on a Sunday morning during a children’s play, killing two people and wounding six before being subdued by church members.

Rev. Chris updated his remarks from that day in Fairfax at a recent vigil for the Parkland victims and survivors, when he said: “The scripture tells us, ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.’ The 17 people massacred in a Broward County high school in Florida last week cannot speak for themselves. We must speak for them.  The children massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary school cannot speak either, nor can the teenagers gunned down at Columbine High School or the college students slaughtered at Virginia Tech or the young adults murdered at the Pulse Night Club or the concertgoers in Las Vegas or the martyrs at Mother Emanuel AME Church or Zaevion Dobson or JaJuan Latham or many others who never make the headlines in a society where we have become numbed to gun violence. We must speak for them.”

We must speak for them.

The ethical teachings of Buddhism are distilled into eight precepts called the Noble Eightfold Path, including principles such as Right Livelihood, Right Action, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech.

According to the most ancient writings, the way to right speech is through four “Abstentions”: Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter. (Most people find that last one the hardest.)  Some teachers, especially some contemporary teachers, prefer to formulate the abstentions as positive guidance: Speak the truth, speak in such a way as to bring people together, speak kindly or at least politely, and speak purposefully about what is important.  Some Buddhist teachers, ancient and modern, also emphasize that there is an aspect of timeliness to right speech: Speak when the time or the circumstances are right, whether the words are welcome or not.

These are important precepts, and not just for Buddhists.  The power of speech, the power of language to destroy or to build, to harm or to heal, can’t be overestimated, and we all need guidance.

I had not expected to be speaking about a school massacre today, when I planned to explore “political correctness” and the principle of Right Speech. But the aspect of timeliness calls me: Suddenly, the right time to talk about gun violence is now.  Of course, the truth is that the time was now before Parkland.  As Rev. Chris went on to say, “After a violent massacre we are told it is “too soon” to talk about responsible public policy, when in fact it is too late.”

Right speech is the necessary speech, the words that are called for in this time, by the circumstances that we are in now.  We must speak for those who have been silenced.

Those who complain about “political correctness” have never actually been silenced. When someone says, “I know this isn’t politically correct, but. . .” they are warning you that they are about to say something derogatory, hateful, mocking, cruel, or dishonest about another human being or group of human beings. They are not seeking the freedom to speak; they are trying to ensure that you remain silent, so that they can speak without consequences.

“What are people really longing for when they lament, ‘political correctness has been the downfall of our country?’ writes Huffington Post commentator Martie Sirois. “Are they pining for a period – not too long ago – when it was universally acceptable to use language that was racist, sexist, homophobic, or prejudiced against someone or a group of people, without any repercussion?”  What had been lost until recently was not the ability to say hateful or harmful things; it was the ability to do so without being challenged or condemned. That’s what people thought our current President would give back to them, and we must not accept it.

Complaining about “political correctness” is a strategy, just like arguing that Black Lives Matter activists protesting police violence are “too angry” or using the “wrong methods,” just like claiming that it’s “not the right time” to talk about sensible gun policies when a mass shooting has just happened.  All of these arguments are strategies meant to silence those who would insist on the dignity and equality of all people, or who would insist on an end to the killing of young black and brown men and women, or who would insist that people should not have to die because of the stranglehold of the NRA on American politics.

What the young activists of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High have done is insist that the time is now to talk about real solutions to gun violence in our communities.  No one can tell them they should be quietly mourning instead of speaking—because they have made it clear that speaking is the shape their mourning takes.  No one can tell them they don’t have the authority to speak and demand to be heard—because they are the true experts on school shootings, the ones who know what it is like to hide in a closet while you hear and see your friends die. They refuse to be silenced by politicians or others who have the utter gall to call them arrogant or disrespectful or naïve or immature, because they are prepared to call BS on phony arguments against sensible gun restrictions.  And they are calling on us to do the same.

The young leaders from Parkland have inspired other young leaders in schools across the country to stand up and demand that adults step up to our adult responsibilities, and act like we value our children’s lives more than we value anyone’s so-called “right” to own a military weapon, more than we value comfortable conversations around the dinner table, more than we value some friendships.  At their call, on March 24th, students across the country will gather in mass demonstrations to call in the name of the dead for common-sense gun policies and other reforms to begin to put an end to the scourge of mass violence in our country.

As you can see in your Order of Service, one of those demonstrations will be held here in the Outer Banks, at Dowdy Park.  It’s my own hope that every single adult who can possibly get free will be there. It is time for us all to follow the leadership of our children and youth, to stand in support of them and of their lives, and to make a firm commitment of our own to use every power we have to ensure that our elected leaders do not dare refuse to take real action—not the appalling stupidity of trying to turn teachers into paramilitary guards and schools into fortresses—but real action to address the fundamental policy framework that supports our country’s addiction to the tools of mass death. It is time for us to break the power of an organization that represents the interests and values of gun manufacturers and sellers, not gun owners, and not our children.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that the students from Stoneman Douglas probably know more about gun policies and the statistics about mass shootings in our country than I do—but only a little embarrassed. It turns out that many of those remarkably articulate, poised, knowledgeable young people have been studying gun policy and mass shootings in their AP government class this year. They have been debating gun policy in the public-speaking classes that are part of their school’s curriculum for all students.  They were, as Slate Magazine journalist Dahlia Lithwick reports, uniquely prepared for this moment. I’m not.

But here’s a challenge I can accept: I can learn, and I can prepare myself for knowledgeable conversations in this moment.  And because I’m in a special position of my own, I can help to make opportunities for other people to learn, and to speak out in turn.

What about you?  

Because the young leaders from Parkland have shown us all something else: they have shown that we have underestimated our power.  As young people did in the Civil Rights Movement, as young people did in the Vietnam War resistance, as young people so often do for those of us who are older, they have reminded us that we have given up too easily, that we have become reconciled to something unacceptable, that we have lost hope, and that we have no right to lose hope.  We have no right to reluctantly reconcile ourselves to gun violence. We have no right to give up.

There are many issues of grave concern in our world today, issues that are directly related to the religious principles that we hold sacred in this spiritual community.  Right Speech does not require that we all speak about all the same things, or in the same way. It does call for us each to consider what truth we are able to speak, and how we are best able to speak it.  Right Speech does not require that we all attach the same level of urgency to any particular concern. It does call for each of us to identify what truth needs our skill, our courage, and our commitment to make it real and visible in the world—and to speak and act, as and when we can.

Each of us has to decide when it is time for us to speak, about this or any other matter; there’s no universal standard or measure.  What does Right Speech ask of you in this time? If it is true that we must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for whom would you choose to speak?

My faith, my Unitarian Universalist faith, teaches me that life is sacred and that love is the power that drives and guides the moral universe.  Every single day offers me some opportunity to put that faith into action. On March 24th, I know where my faith will be calling me to be. I’ll be there if I possibly can. I hope you’ll be there if you can.

May we be the ones to make it so.

Sermon – Practice Resurrection 4.16.17

Practice Resurrection
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
April 16, 2017

Often when I’m in need of solace, or inspiration, or challenge, I’ve found the poet Wendell Berry speaking to me.  A poem of his called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” gave me a gem that I’ve been drawn back to again and again. The poem warns that a love for comfort and easy gains will seduce us into the control of those who will use our life for their own ends.  To escape, to claim our life, he says, we need to cut against the grain of the culture around us.  Here’s a sampling of a few of his suggestions for liberation:

“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.  Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.
* * *
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees every thousand years.”

You get the idea. There’s much more, but his final words of advice, the last line of the poem, rang me like a bell when I first saw them.

“Practice resurrection.”

Practice resurrection.

What could that mean?  We think we know what resurrection is, and it doesn’t seem like something you can practice. It’s a one-time event in the Christian Gospels, the story of Easter morning. Jesus, executed by the Roman colonizers and the Jewish religious leaders of his time because his movement and his teachings threatened their power. His body laid in a temporary grave, because it’s Passover, just as it is in our world, in our time today, and it’s forbidden to handle the dead during the sacred days of the festival. The grave closed with a massive stone because the authorities have heard that Jesus said the grave could not hold him, and they fear a trick. The women among his followers coming to the tomb the morning after the holy days were over, to find the stone moved, the body gone, a mysterious messenger telling them Jesus is living. And then suddenly he is appearing to his followers, teaching them again, promising, when he finally leaves them, that he will send a spirit to guide them.

That’s resurrection, as we’ve learned to understand it: Jesus triumphs over death, rises from the grave, and promises his followers eternal life. That’s what the word means, isn’t it?  You can’t practice that, can you?

From the very earliest days of Christianity, though, there have been people who said that resurrection means something very different.  For many of Jesus’ earliest followers, and for mystics and scholars in the centuries since, including our own Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, the question of the resurrection hasn’t been “What happened to Jesus?” As the contemporary Christian theologian Walter Wink puts it, something very real happened in the resurrection, but that reality was in the minds and hearts of Jesus’ followers.

Think about those followers.  It wasn’t only Jesus, their friend and teacher, that had died that dreadful day. They were left in the ashes of a hopeful movement.  They had been filled with expectation; they were sure that the Roman invaders and the puppet Hebrew king Herod were about to be swept aside and Jesus would become the leader of a new Kingdom of God on earth. And suddenly that vision was gone, crushed in one terrible afternoon.  Jesus was dead. Their hope and their expectations were dead. And then, somehow, they began to feel that he was alive and real and with them.  Not in any simple or obvious way, as if he hadn’t died after all, or as if he’d come back from a journey,  but alive in some new way, alive in them and through them. In Walter Wink’s words, “They continued his life by advancing his mission.” That’s the resurrection we can practice.

Maybe it’s not too hard for us to imagine, these days, what it feels like to be left in the ashes of a hopeful movement.  Many of us have felt in recent months that our expectations for what our nation and our world would be like in the next few years have died. Whatever happens, it is not going to look like we thought and hoped it would, as recently as this time last year. How much time and energy we have spent, so many of us, insisting that it’s just wrong, that things shouldn’t have turned out the way they did and should somehow be turned back, that we can’t bear the thought that we have to fight so many old battles all over again?

And yet in the midst of grief and outrage and denial, something else is already happening. As we begin to accept the reality of the death of our expectations, everywhere you look, new activists and organizers are coming forward.  New voices are being raised, new alliances formed; new commitments are emerging to protect the vulnerable, to guard the integrity of our public discourse, to rise up in defense of the progress we have made toward being a more just, inclusive, and compassionate society.  The movement has taken on new life. That’s what the practice of resurrection looks like.

It’s not only in great public events that this happens.  Maybe you’ve known a place in the story of your own life where the death of expectation or hope has left you in need of the practice of resurrection.  Maybe even now, you’re waiting for something new to happen.

Perhaps you’ve been through one of the bewildering array of life changes that come to all of us, sometimes more than one at a time—a new home, a change in our work life, a health challenge for ourselves or a loved one, a new relationship or a relationship lost, a change in physical capacity, or in our ability to live independently.  Maybe you’re in the throes of one of those passages right now.

Perhaps you’ve known that moment when you look across the table at someone you seem to have lost the knack for loving, and wondering which way life will turn.  Toward restoration or a parting?

Maybe your life has come, sometime, to the point of utter ruin in a long battle with addiction, with mental or emotional illness, or with some behavior you couldn’t quite let go of.  Perhaps you’re on the cusp of a moment like that even now.

Maybe you have lived in that time of desolation after the loss of a loved one, in the valley of the shadow of death, not sure that you could bear the loss.

We know this moment; it’s impossible to live as a human being and never encounter such a moment.  Whatever the situation, when we find ourselves at a moment of impasse and impossibility, it’s time to practice resurrection.

It always begins with the death of expectations.  We have to let them die, and oh, how hard that is. We are so certain that we know how things should be, or how they should have been, or what someone should have done, or what we should be able to do.  We might even think we won’t survive if things don’t turn out the way we know they should. We have to let that go.  We have to relax and release the part of ourselves that’s clinging to the idea that we know what is supposed to happen, and that it will happen if we just cling long and hard enough.

It is hard to let expectations die, and yet the death of expectations might just be the birth of hope.  As our denial and resistance and insistence pour out, the way is opened for the inflowing of life and love and healing, and the unimaginably infinite possibilities of a Universe that delights in interconnection and revels in creativity.

The heart and center of Jesus’ teaching, the center of all wisdom teaching, was that he, and all of humankind, and all creatures and all of creation are infused with a Presence he called God, all of us kindled from within by a Power of creativity and compassion that overflows every boundary that separates us, and that never deserts us. Resurrection is what happens when we feel that Power move in us, when we let it turn us from despair toward healing, toward new hope.

Nothing exists without change.  Death is part of life; disillusionment is part of dreaming; loss is part of loving.  Despair is a land that no conscious person escapes visiting.

But today is Easter.

And the message of Easter above all is that there is a power of love great enough for us to rely on with absolute assurance, a power that never lets us go.  To practice resurrection means to proclaim with all our beings that we will not allow fear or pain or loss to become an excuse for being unloving. We will not accept disillusionment as the final destiny of dreams.  We will not recognize death as the final chapter of a life story.

To practice resurrection means to declare, with all our power and purpose, that the land of despair is not our home. We proclaim our citizenship in the land of hope and promise, the land that we will help to love into life.  And that’s good news enough to sing about, on Easter or any other morning.

Sermon – Good Grief 10.30.16

Good Grief
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
October 30, 2016

Once again we call the names of our beloved dead, and shared this worship time together in the light of their living presence.  With their names on our lips and in our ears, with their voices and faces fresh in our memories, with the truth of our love for them in our hearts, we take this time each year to consider the inevitable and inescapable truth that Forrest Church says is the foundation of all religious faith:  We are alive, and we know that we have to die.  We explore this in their presence, for it is hard for us to think and talk about death and grief.  We need good company.

You might think it would be easier for a minister to think and talk about these things.  After all, along with study and reading and time for reflection, as a minister I have had the precious privilege of speaking with so many people who have been stricken with loss and grief; I have had the honor of walking with the dying to the very edge of their departure.  It’s part of my calling to spend more time in this borderland between life and death than most people do.  So I know its pain and desolation; and I know its richness and its beauties, too.  I am blessed to have the chance, again and again, to see how human beings I know and care about make meaning out of life in the face of death, how they heal in the aftermath of the unbearable.

After all that, you would think it would get easier, each year, to lift the lid on the simmering subjects of death and loss and grief, and dip in the ladle and find something of healing and comfort, hope and courage to share in a sermon. Yet every year I find myself, as the weeks go by and this All Souls Sunday approaches, using all of my considerable skill at postponing the writing process.  Isn’t there a phone call I need to make?  Perhaps someone has sent me an email.  I’ve been meaning to make some copies for the reading group . . . Have we really got just the right hymns for the Order of Service?  Does it need proofreading. . . again?

Some of my own dearly beloveds are gathered in our throng of silent witnesses this morning.  Jessie, my wife for ten years, now twenty years dead, is here listening today.  More than ten years ago both of my parents joined what George Eliot calls “the choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence.”  There are recent friends here, people whose loved ones I consoled; people I laughed and wept with right here in this very place; they are here today too.

It is never easy.  The only way to speak honestly about grief is from this place where our hearts break, this place of deepened reverence for what is precious.  That is a holy place, and a place of great power, the power to make life luminous with fire—but it is hard to enter.  That’s why we do it in this rich company of our loved ones every year.  They remind us that death is real, and they remind us that love is as strong as death.

Loss is an essential element of existence.  Author Molly Fumia, in a small and helpful book called Safe Passage, says: “We are all grieving.  Being alive requires of us a relationship with the mysterious, life-long experience of letting go, whether it be the small daily dyings that dot our existence, or the gripping, transformative experience of saying farewell to someone we’ve loved.”

Loss and mourning are inevitable and as natural as breathing.

All this is true, but it isn’t very concrete.  Once we acknowledge that the terrain of grief is a place where we all must walk in our turn, what road maps are there?  What tips for the fearsome journey can help us along the way?

Perhaps the most helpful travel advice I’ve ever found is the reminder that there is no one right way to grieve.  The best books on this subject describe their particular analysis of the grieving process, but they are careful to say, “Of course, what you experience may be very different from what we’re describing.”  I’ve talked with so many grieving people who say “I’m probably not doing this very well,” and I will almost always tell them:  What you’re experiencing is what doing it well feels like.

There is lots of good advice out there, in books and elsewhere, and if you are grieving a loss right now, I recommend that you follow some of it.  Wise counselors will tell you to take time alone—or to surround yourself with people.  They will tell you to find time to rest—or to keep busy.  They will tell you many things.  Follow their advice; expect it, sometimes, not to work for you.  That’s all right.  No two griefs are alike.  The next thing you try might be the right one for your hurt, for your healing.

Trust yourself, trust that you are strong enough to feel what you’re feeling; trust in your ability to heal.  Trust the messy process of grieving.  No two griefs are alike, yet there are common elements, and there are skills that can help us navigate the terrain.

It may seem odd to speak of grieving as a set of skills.  But grief is not a feeling; sorrow isn’t the same thing as grief.  Grief is work, it is a process made of tasks that lead us from loss to acceptance, and it comes with a kaleidoscope of complex emotions.  Sorrow is only one of them.  Good grieving is to the emotional and spiritual life what successful physical healing is to the body—a long and sometimes painful process of growth and restoration that is never a complete return to the way things were before the hurt.

The first aftermath of loss is often disorienting.  Something that was given about our life suddenly is no more, and though we know intellectually what’s happened, at first our emotional self is not so certain.  In the early phases, grief often takes the shape of confusion.  Our mind slows and struggles to hold the simplest thought.  This isn’t unlike what happens to our body when we sustain a serious injury:  It often goes numb, and the numbness protects us from experiencing just how bad the hurt really is.

The way out of the confusion, and the first task of grieving, is to make our loss real.  As our mind and spirit become prepared to accept it, we find our way toward knowing that our loss has actually happened; it isn’t a mistake, and we aren’t going to wake up tomorrow and realize it isn’t so.  We can help this process by telling someone exactly what happened, and by talking and thinking about our lost loved one.   We can write or sketch a timeline of their life.  We can write letters to them.  And then as the enormous, everyday implications of our loss slowly become clear, we can accept the emotions that come in response to them.

Accepting our own feelings is the second task of grieving.  On any given day, we might feel:  helpless, afraid, empty, irritable, despairing, restless, angry, or pessimistic.  We might feel none of those things.  We might lose motivation or energy, or we might feel driven to work and create.  We might lose our appetite, or feel constantly hungry.  We might want to be alone—or feel suddenly, shockingly amorous.  We might stay up all night—or sleep all day—or both.  Denying or struggling against these feelings will not make them go away.  Acknowledging them and letting them pass through us at their own pace will move us toward healing.  Whatever we are feeling right now is what we are supposed to be feeling right now.  Let it be, and let it pass.

As we begin to accept the reality and finality of our loss, and to acknowledge our own depth of feeling, we need to offer ourselves compassion and comfort.  This is a third task of grieving.  Whatever our sources of grace and solace, we need to call on them in this time.  That might mean praying, meditating, reading in important books or hearing beloved music; it might mean long walks in the woods or on the beach; it might mean hours in the company of loving companions. It’s a time to be gentle and kind with ourselves.

A fourth task is creating the living memory we will carry forward with us.  When we are healing from the loss of a beloved person in our life, telling stories or making pictures of our life with them is important.  We need to remind ourselves who our loved one really was, what they were really like.  Our memory is at least one part of their ongoing life, so we want it to be as true and complete as possible.  No airbrushing, no digital enhancements; remember the good and the hard together.  Objects like photographs and mementos can be helpful in this, especially if they are ones that trigger fuller recollections.

It’s in creating the living memory of our loved one that we can often begin to sense that presence Rebecca Parker speaks of, the presence that is never wholly lost.  It seems sometimes like the presence of our loved one, and then again it isn’t them exactly—yet it is unmistakably a presence of love in which they have a part.  It is not them, but it includes them.  And it includes us as well.

Molly Fumia writes of a woman in El Salvador who was the only survivor of a massacre that killed more than 1000 people, including her four children.  Later in her life she works with children at a day care center, among coworkers who share her grief with her and do not ask her to forget.  In their companionship, she says, she learned that “if I give in to hatred, I will become like the murderers.  Instead I give in to love, and the children I lost continue in that love.  In the end,” she says, “love will be victorious.”

Give in to love.  That Presence in which we feel the presence of our loved ones is the presence of Love.  We give in to it when we become that presence in the world for others who are suffering and who are mourning.

In some synagogues, I’ve been told, there is a mourner’s bench at the back, a special seat reserved for those who are grieving.  We need companions who will sit on the mourners’ bench with us, who will not flinch away from our emotions or the painful reality of our loss and who remind us that life continues.  Those companions are the Presence of love.  This is one of the greatest privileges of ministry:  I am invited to sit with you in grief; as a minister I am trusted to be that unflinching companion who may do no more than be present, recognize and accept what you are going through, and stay beside you through the worst.  It is the holiest of gifts.  And it is the final task of grieving: Give in to love.  Become the Presence of Love in someone’s life when they need it.

Love is as strong as death.  Here in this community of love and faith, may we learn together how to accept our losses and to hold each other up when we are hurting.  May this be a place where we can find companions for the mourners’ bench, where we can grow to be the Presence of Love for one another, and for the world of hurt that surrounds us.  May we learn to embrace each other, to accept each other, and to point each other patiently toward love, toward hope, toward new life.

Sermon – Did I Really Do That? 10.16.16

Did I Really Do That?
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
October 16, 2016

I have a picture tucked away somewhere of a very young man in a wildly patterned blue knit dress shirt, a maroon sports jacket, and a wide, cream-colored tie.  I can’t look at it without cringing.  Once I get through claiming that can’t possibly be me—I mean really, for one thing, that guy has a lot of dark red hair—I look at that picture of my 1974 idea of high fashion and I think:  Did I really do that?

That’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about today.  Nor am I talking about the accidental kind of wrongdoing that’s in our story.

Most of us have something in our lives far more difficult to accept than a terrible set of clothes, or a time when we were mistakenly sure we were right.  Haven’t most of us, sometime in our lives, done or said or condoned something that goes against our inward sense of who we are, or of who we think we ought to be?

The memories come in flashes—maybe it’s a snarl of a voice, a glimpse of cash in a rarely-opened drawer. . . perhaps the tightness of an objection caught in our throat, or the stomach-dropping sight of something we thought was secret on a screen we know is monitored.  Sometimes, it’s harder to look:  Flashing police lights, crushed metal, and a half-finished text message.  A moment of fear and fire and outraged reaction in a long-ago jungle, or a desert halfway around the world.  The shocked and hurt face of a child.

This week on the sadly debased stage of Presidential politics, the chosen candidate of a major American political party has led us into a moment of horrified remembrance.  Extraordinary numbers of women are remembering awful things that happened to them or to women they know and love.  Many of us who identify as male have flashed back to moments when some alpha boy, or man, said something grotesque about women.  We remember feeling paralyzed, soiled by association, silenced by fear of being rejected or targeted by “the guys.” We may remember walking away in shame; we may remember awkwardly going along; some of us may even remember being the Lord of the Louts in a very different time of our lives.

Most of us can look into our past and find pictures of our own, some modest, some harrowing.  We look at them reluctantly and think:  Did I really do that?

Communities of all sizes have these moments, too, these memories we would rather not have.  I think of a southern UU congregation proud of its civil rights work in the 1960s that found in its archives a letter proving it had begun life long ago as a whites-only congregation. I think of the systematic dismantling of the Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island and the forced deportation of most of its residents after the abandonment of Reconstruction.

I think of nations at war, of ethnic cleansing; I think of Crusaders, of vigilantes, of pilgrims and pioneers and police, looking at human beings and seeing only animals and obstacles and threats.   I think of terrorists plotting a kidnapping in Nigeria, an attack in Baghdad, a massacre in Orlando, a bombing of Somali immigrants in Kansas. Choose your era; choose your people; there is always something.

Did we really do that?  Was that really us?

We know what we want the answer to be:  No.  That wasn’t me, it wasn’t us.  We spin a story:  They were threatening our national interest.  She made me so mad.  It was for their own good.  That was just “locker room talk.”  We explain:  I wasn’t myself, I didn’t mean it that way.  It seemed like the right thing to do.  We flinch.  We turn away.  It was long ago.  It wasn’t really that bad.  No use crying over spilt milk.  It’s over.  Let’s move on.

But it’s not over, and we can’t move on.  Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa at the end of the Apartheid era, says:  “the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately.  Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.”  (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 28)

On the far side of denial, we can also find ourselves trapped in a chronic state of shame and self-blame about events in our past that we won’t accept.  As Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes, self-blame and self-mistrust create what she calls “the trance of unworthiness,” a state in which in inner voice constantly tells us that we are inadequate, unacceptable, unworthy of love.

Whether we try denial or self-blame, our inability to come to terms with our own past behavior can lead to more harm.  We might attack or blame others for doing what we ourselves once did, with the intensity of the attack driven by our own feelings of hypocrisy.  We might stand by in silence as new harm is done, feeling that we have no right to speak.  We might turn attention away from people being victimized now by pulling the focus of attention to our own story, our own past transgressions, our own feelings either of shame or of moral superiority because we no longer do such terrible things.

None of these strategies helps.  As Desmond Tutu warns, until we have come to terms with this haunting bit of our past, we cannot let it go.  Until we have accepted our own part in the shameful event and our own feelings about it, we cannot fully make amends, we cannot keep our own past from causing further harm, and we cannot successfully work against the forces that cause others to do the same now as we did then.

This is the wisdom of the Jewish Day of Atonement:  Every year, Jews are called to honestly name the ways in which they have done harm, to seek forgiveness, to make amends where they can, to make changes that will prevent more harm in the future.  It’s an extraordinarily healthy and healing practice.

The first step toward freedom is to answer the question “Did I really do that?” by saying, Yes.  I really did.  That was me, not some demon or power beyond my control. It was me. I cannot change that.  This is hard for us, especially in our culture, where blame and shame seem to be the everyday currency of relationship.  We may feel sure that if we accept that we really did something that shouldn’t have happened, we’ll drown in our own sense of guilt.

So the second step is to offer ourselves compassion as we consider the painful past.  This begins with taking the time to sit with our own feelings about the event, simply paying attention to what happens in our own body and mind as we name the truth.  As we notice whatever comes up, we offer ourselves, our memories, and our feelings a simple tenderness and care.  It’s all right to feel what I’m feeling right now, we can tell ourselves.  And it is all right to cry over spilt milk.  What happened, happened, and we cannot change it, but what we did was what we could do then.  Now, we are free to do something differently—to make amends, to change our own lives, to make changes in the world.

I’ve seen that happen.  At the first gathering of the District Anti-Racism Transformation Team for what’s now called the Southeast District of the UUA, we were asked why we wanted to work against racism.  Most of us told stories about all the work we had done before—what people experienced in anti-racism work call “credentialing,” as we subtly try to prove that we’re doing the work because we ourselves are already beyond all that old racist baggage.

Then one woman, Judy, said in effect:  While y’all were doing all that, I was handing out flyers for George Wallace in grocery-store parking lots.  Her journey had taken her from overt racism to becoming a tireless anti-racism activist.  Judy’s one of my heroes because her blunt, no-excuses honesty about her past set her free from shame and gave her a clear path to heal herself and others.  That intense lesson in the powerful practice of truth has stayed with me ever since.

Near the close of the 20th century, there was a demonstration of the power of this practice on an immense scale.   In the first years after the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the first truly democratically elected government in that nation’s history created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with crimes and atrocities committed in the last years of White domination.  The Commission was grounded on the belief that the past must be acknowledged before it can be healed.  Individuals could receive amnesty for crimes they had committed, provided they testified before the Commission in detail about what they had done and to whom.  Victims of those crimes and their families also testified, describing in detail what had happened to them or to their loved ones. For months, an unbearable litany of horrors was unfolded, and held in honesty and compassion.

The result was extraordinary.  Instead of dissolving into a bloodbath, or subjecting White South Africans to the same persecutions they had inflicted on Black and other non-White South Africans, both of which were widely expected in the world, the re-constituted country began its new life peacefully and with the foundations for healing in place.

This isn’t a happily-ever-after fairy tale.  The Republic of South Africa has a legacy of brutal oppression, which still causes harm and will take generations to heal.   But after the Truth and Reconciliation process no one can pretend, and no one has to pretend that nothing bad ever happened.  And because they don’t have to pretend there’s no pain, the long work of healing can go forward. Perhaps we could try a process of our own like that, here in the United States of America.  There are a few things about our history we have a hard time accepting.

We do not have to live in denial or in shame over our transgressions.   As individuals or as a nation, we can be free of those chains.  This isn’t just a self-help technique for personal growth; it is a fundamental teaching of our faith:  Human beings, all human beings, have the capacity to learn, to choose, and to change.

We are not the unredeemable sum of our past; the divine light of human worth and dignity burns within every one of us.  If we hold fast to our commitment to truth and to compassion, we can heal the wounds that afflict our hearts and divide the human family.  We can each grow into the fullness of our life’s possibilities.  We can make a world of love, peace, and justice.

I want to leave you with a story that many of you may have heard before.  There was a man named John Newton, a British sailor in the slave trade in the 18th century.  Newton was notorious as a disobedient, unreliable, foul-mouthed troublemaker.  On one of his voyages a terrible storm nearly sank the slave ship, and Newton began to reexamine his life.  Soon he left the slave trade and became an Anglican priest.  He and the poet William Cowper wrote many hymns together.

When he retired from the ministry in the 1780s, John Newton became an outspoken advocate for abolishing the slave trade, and joined with abolitionist crusader William Wilberforce to press for the passage in 1807 of the law ending the trade throughout the British Empire.

Newton’s ministry and his anti-slavery work were made more powerful by his open admission that he had once been caught up in the very same evils he was now working against.  He called the power that set him free Grace, and he understood Grace as a gift from God.  We do not have to share his understanding of those words to share in the joy of knowing that our lives are not defined by our most wretched mistakes, choices, and actions.  For each of us and all of us, life can be something more, something loving, something beautiful.  Now let’s rise in body or spirit and join in singing John Newton’s most famous hymn: “Amazing Grace.”

Sermon – Blessed Assurance 10.2.16

Blessed Assurance
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
October 2, 2016

One of the things newcomers to Unitarian Universalism are often struck by, especially if they have lived in a religious tradition that did not welcome questions or doubts about foundational statements of belief, is that our faith seems to be comfortable with a high degree of uncertainty about Truth with a capital T.

It’s surprising for some of us; I know it was for me.  I was used to thinking that religion was about choosing to believe a set of propositions—God made this; this is who and what Jesus was; the prophet says that; the gods and goddesses expect this.  Instead, our tradition has learned over the years to say that ALL such propositions are uncertain, more likely to be metaphor than fact.  Religion for us is about how we live in relationship to one another, to the society into which we’re born, and to the world which sustains and nurtures our life.

We even have a reading in our hymnal that reminds us: “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. . . the key to the door of knowledge. . . the servant of discovery.”  Yes, we are happy, as UU theologian Paul Rasor says, to practice “faith without certainty.”

For some religious believers, though, along with the certainty of refusing to doubt comes a deeper sense, that’s often called “assurance.”  Assurance is more of a feeling than a conviction—an embodied sense of being held by the truth, rather than an intellectual decision that something is true.  Assurance is different from belief; it is a fundamental experience of the way things are in the world.  Assurance is what we know in our bones, as people say.

“Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.”

That’s the first verse of an 1873 hymn, offering the doctrinal foundation, the intellectual belief that becomes a sense of assurance in the third and final verse:

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

That’s assurance:  All is at rest.  That is a deep, sure knowing that all is well with me and with the world:  filled with his goodness; lost in his love.  Assurance for the believer of this hymn is experiencing the love of God as ultimately trustworthy; utterly reliable.

Oh, but my skeptical spirit, my cherished doubt got me into trouble back in the first verse.  Would a loving God really demand a blood sacrifice of his own son to redeem other children of God’s own creation?  And what about those who know nothing of the ancient story of Original sin and salvation; is the glory divine closed to them?  Is that fair?

When I ask such questions, when I decide that whatever metaphorical truth I might find in the Scriptures of any faith, I simply cannot believe they are literally accurate—am I also giving up all the assurance of that final verse?

That’s the question Christopher and Skyler posed in our conversations about the service they purchased in last year’s Auction.  To be honest, that’s only one of a lot of topics we covered, but it’s the one we settled on for today.  Does assurance, that bone-deep experience that I am at peace, reconciled and at home in Creation—does that feeling of being “happy and blest” belong only to those faiths offer certainty?

I am no longer persuaded that the sacrifice of Jesus saved me from a well-deserved eternity in Hell.  I am not convinced that the words of any Prophet are a blueprint of Creation and a roadmap for a virtuous life.  I cannot make myself believe that incense and gifts of flowers and fruit combined with the right prayers and songs will make the Gods hear and smile on me. And yet I still need to feel that I am safe and at home in an existence interfused with a Cosmic purpose and meaning.

Surrendering old certainties, I might come to believe that I’m on my own, adrift in a vast and chaotic universe whose only meanings are the ones I adopt from others or discover for myself.  Worse, perhaps there is no meaning at all, only the illusions of miniscule beings whose brief lives are less than a fleck of dust against the vast canvas of the Cosmos.  If that’s true, how shall I decide what is worthy of my devotion, my life’s energy, my heart’s commitment?

Without that sense of assurance, the struggles of the world or the troubles of our own life can seem too much to hold on our own. So I think it’s important to ask:  We with our faith that embraces uncertainty, we who cherish doubt—is anything ultimately trustworthy, utterly reliable for us?

Michael Dowd offers up one possibility, one I find persuasive:  The Universe, he says, the unfolding creative reality that has formed us across eons of evolutionary change; the Universe itself can be trusted absolutely.  We don’t have to take this, as the saying goes, on faith: we’ve got 14 billion years’ worth of evidence.  Since the moment the Universe originated as a burst of pure energy, it has moved in the direction of greater diversity and complexity, greater awareness and intimacy with itself; it has held onto its breakthroughs and developments, and it has provided itself an unending stream of challenges that open the way for more creativity.  It is utterly reliable and ultimately trustworthy.

Now, that might seem a little abstract: Fine to think about, but hard to really feel in the way we need a sense of assurance to feel.  Here’s the thing, though:  Our personal relationship with that vast, 14 billion-year-old Universe is as intimate as it is possible to be.  As Dowd puts it:  “We human beings are not separate creatures on Earth, in a Universe.  We are a mode of being of Earth, an expression of the Universe.”

That movement of the Universe toward greater awareness, toward increased intimacy with itself?  To the best of our knowledge, at the present moment, the leading edge of that movement—is us.  Not just us in this room, although I think some of you are pretty far advanced; not just Unitarian Universalists, no matter what we think when we’re impatient with what seems like a stubbornly senseless society, but the whole undivided human family.  We’re it.  As far as we know today, we are the most developed current expression of the Creative, Sustaining Life Force of the Cosmos.

In Buddhist teacher Tara Brach’s words, life is living through us.  All of us, and each of us.  All the time.

We are born from an act of intimacy that encompasses millions of years of evolving life.  When we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, the Cosmos experiences itself inside and out.  When we love, when we laugh, when we weep, life knows its own heart.  When we learn, the Universe discovers itself.  When we act in the face of injustice, crisis, or catastrophe, we are the Universe unleashing its creativity to meet the challenges it provides.  And when we die, the elements of our body and the conscious connections we have made with each other go forward as part of the emerging, unfolding reality that gave birth to us and takes us back into itself.

Does it mean anything, does it change anything, to know this?  Well, here’s what it suggests to me:  No matter what life brings, no matter what the need or the struggle of any given moment, we are always intimately in relationship with an inexhaustible source of energy, interconnection, and creativity.  We know this, quite literally, in our bones.

When I am wondering where I should direct the gifts and the hours and the energy of my life, I am seeking what will advance the movement toward greater diversity, greater awareness, more intimacy and interconnection which is woven into the very nature of the world around me—and into me.

When you are assailed by an onslaught of loneliness, or struggling with loss or some isolating experience, you can withstand the hurt of it, because you know in your own body that life is so much larger than any one moment’s longing; you can turn outward again knowing that there is love everywhere, and that it comes to meet us when we open our own heart to others.

When racism and injustice are threatening the lives of our black and brown siblings in this human family, when children are being killed by the failure of nations to care more about lives than power, when the very planet whose life is our life is under threat, we can move toward the front lines of the struggle to make things right, because we know that our actions, however small, are the creative power of the Universe in action, shaping and transforming the course of existence one particle, one atom, one cell, one system, one body, one idea, one movement, one nation at a time.

And if I wake some morning to the voice of my own inner accuser snarling that my life is a story of failure, shortcoming, and pretense, I can get out of bed and meet the day because I know, I know in my bones that I am so much more, that I am part of a story so infinitely long and rich that I can barely imagine its beginning or end.

I don’t always know this; I don’t always feel it.  None of us always knows it or feels it, and when we forget it, we suffer fiercely.  It takes practice—and practice doesn’t make perfect; it just makes progress.  But when we do remember, we know we can always turn toward wholeness, toward healing, toward love, toward life.  That’s what assurance means:  When we remember where and how to search, what we need to find is always, always there.  We do not need to be certain of its name, or its exact nature, or how many of its angels can dance on the heads of what kind of pins.  We do need to know that it is always there, and that we can find it when we need it.

The unimaginable, holy spark of life that was given birth in the hearts of the stars, the unfathomable consciousness that arose in the deeps of time and inhabits and transforms every living thing—it is here, right here.

It lives in the small everyday beauties Carrie Newcomer sings about.  It sounds along the ages in every human faith.  Its tongue speaks in the voices of the ocean and the wind, the dunes and the trees and the creatures all around us.  It opens the rose and it opens our hearts.  It greets us as a presence that disturbs us with the joy of elevated thoughts.  It calls us to compassion; it urges us toward justice; it draws us toward love; it invites us toward understanding.

What is utterly reliable lives in each of us and all of us; it is everywhere around us in the vast fabric of a living, breathing Universe, and each of us is a unique, irreplaceable, precious thread.  Filled with its goodness.  Lost in its love.  If that isn’t a blessed assurance, I can’t imagine what is.

Sermon – A Moral Revolution 9.18.16

A Moral Revolution
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
September 18, 2016

The Higher Ground Moral Declaration

We declare that the deepest public concerns of our nation and faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, children, workers, immigrants and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations. 

Together, we lift up and defend the most sacred moral principles of our faith and constitutional values, which are: the economic liberation of all people; ensuring every child receives access to quality education; healthcare access for all; criminal justice reform; and ensuring historically marginalized communities have equal protection under the law.

Our moral traditions have a firm foundation upon which to stand against the divide-and-conquer strategies of extremists. We believe in a moral agenda that stands against systemic racism, classism, poverty, xenophobia, and any attempt to promote hate towards any members of the human family.

We claim a higher ground in partisan debate by returning public discourse to our deepest moral and constitutional values.

Last Monday, in at least 30 states, coalitions of people including advocates for racial justice, immigration reform and the protection of immigrant families, living wages and workers’ rights, women’s reproductive health, universal access to healthcare, public education, equal rights for LGBTQ people, environmental justice, and criminal justice reform came together in what was called the National Higher Ground Moral Day of Action.  Longer versions of the declaration you’ve just heard, with thousands of signatures, were simultaneously delivered to state houses across the country.

To quote the summary shared on Wednesday by the Rev. William J. Barber II, the President of North Carolina’s Chapter of the NAACP, “in 30 state capitols and the District of Columbia, rabbis, imams, priests and preachers stood with people impacted by unjust policies to declare, in one voice, that some issues are not liberal or conservative, but right versus wrong.”

Rev. Barber has joined with the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic nun, lawyer, and justice activist, and the Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, the United Church of Christ’s executive director for Justice and Witness, in a Revival tour, calling for a “Moral Revolution of Values” in our country.  They have already delivered the Higher Ground Moral Declaration to both the Republican and Democratic Party conventions and held events in D.C. and in New York; in the next few weeks they’ll appear in Kansas City, Richmond, Ferguson, Missouri, Louisville, Minneapolis, Charleston, and more, with revival events that will be streamed online for those of us who cannot attend in person.

A movement for justice, equity, and compassion is stirring across the country.  Unitarian Universalists are part of it in many places.  If we choose to be, we can too.

It’s no coincidence that the peak of activity by this growing coalition of moral dissenters is happening as the election draws near—or that it’s focused on Presidential battleground states and on states where legislatures have been systematically dismantling public education, access to healthcare, voting rights, and civil and economic protections for their states’ poorest and most vulnerable people.  The Moral Revolution calls for political change—and this is one of the most critical election years in recent memory, maybe one of the most critical in the history of our nation.  Yet this is not at heart a political movement, in the partisan electoral sense.

The movement’s organizational roots go back to the coalition of sixteen organizations that created the first North Carolina People’s Assembly in 2007, drawing thousands of people in the February cold to a historic gathering for education and advocacy on Raleigh’s Jones Street.

Its moral ancestry goes back further, to the multiracial, multi-faith coalitions in our nation’s history who worked for the abolition of slavery, who fought for women’s rights, who helped create racially integrated legislatures during Reconstruction, and who resisted the renewal of legalized white supremacy and white racial terrorism from the time Reconstruction was abandoned to the Civil Rights Era. Unitarians and Universalists were part of those coalitions, too.

In truth, the Moral Revolution’s ancestry goes back further.  Religious leaders who are part of the movement trace their responsibility to work for justice all the way back to the ancient scriptures and stories of their faith, and ground their work in a divine call for justice.  Rev. Barber himself likes to quote the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah, who conveys these words from God to the rulers of the people:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

To loose the bonds of wickedness,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

And to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

And bring the homeless poor into your house;

When you see the naked, to cover him,

And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

This is not a partisan political agenda.  When Hebrew prophet Micah says that all God requires of the people of God is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” the question of whether God’s party is Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, or Socialist Worker doesn’t come up.

In the next few days I’ll work with our Facebook and Web Page folks to post links to pictures and information from the Higher Ground Day of Action.  If you want to feel good about people putting our faith into action, you should take a look.  In picture after picture from those 30 state events, you’ll see those yellow Standing on the Side of Love banners and t-shirts, and U.U. clergy members among the people posing in front of State Capitol Buildings.

Some U.U.’s engaged in the Moral Revolution identify as Jewish or Christian, and for them those ancient words from the Bible are as compelling as they are for any Evangelical, urging them to “bring the good news to the poor,” as Jesus instructed in his very first sermon.  For others, the “holy ground” they stand upon is different: Perhaps a firm belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person is the foundation of their moral understanding; or perhaps it’s Buddhist teachings of universal compassion.  The ethical teachings of humanism that firmly place responsibility for building a just and equitable society into human hands are compelling for some.

For me, the fundamental interconnectedness of all human life convinces me beyond doubt that no one is free when some are oppressed, that no prosperity is sustainable when some are destitute, that there is no “security” to be found by harming others.

What is that holy ground for you, the place where you can stand firm and sure in seeking justice, equity, and compassion?  We need to know, because if we choose to be part of the Moral Revolution, we are in for the long haul, and only a sure sense of our own moral foundation will sustain us.  However convinced we may be that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, there is no doubt that struggle will be necessary to help it make the curve.  Struggle is always necessary, as the liberated slave Frederick Douglas reminded us in 1857 when he wrote:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle, there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without demand; it never has and it never will.”

Today, the powers that seek to keep systemic inequality and injustice in place are strong, and they are determined, and they do not hesitate or hold back from using any means necessary to hold on to political power.  If we choose to “lift up and defend the most sacred moral principles of our faith and constitutional values,” as the Higher Ground Moral Declaration says, we will need every spiritual resource we can find to keep us in the struggle.

So what do you think?  Are we part of the Moral Revolution?   Do we want to be?

The organizers of last Monday’s Day of Action ask for two things from those who are ready to sign the declaration, which you can do online if you choose to.  First, they invite anyone and everyone to organize, get to the polls, and vote for candidates who will embrace a moral agenda.  Sister Simone Campbell’s organization provides online resources and tools for engaging the election as effectively as possible.  Second, they ask rabbis, imams, priests, pastors, and other clerics to preach and teach about the moral agenda at least twice between now and November 8th.  So if you’re wondering why this came up today. . . now you know.

I have one other invitation for us: Rev. Barber’s most recent book, The Third Reconstruction, published by our Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Beacon Press, is the U.U.A.’s “common read” selection this year, a book that all UUs are invited to read and engage.  Starting in October, on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month, I will be facilitating a drop-in, social justice-related book group for anyone who would like to join, and this is the first book we’ll explore together.  If you’re interested, send me an email or text this week and I’ll order books for us together when my Study Leave ends next week, so we get a discounted price.  I encourage you to get and read the book even if you can’t join the group—it’s powerful and moving, and well worth your time.

Throughout the history of our country, there have been moments of great promise and great peril, when we have had the opportunity to move toward a greater fulfillment of our founders’ incomplete vision—or to move further away from it.  We have done both over time. I believe we are living in one of those moments now.  Right now, we have the chance to become a more inclusive, more just, more compassionate and equitable society—or to make another agonizing u-turn, and take a detour that could be fatal.

Each of us and all of us can help to choose the better path.

May we be the ones to make it so.

Sermon – Pour Yourself In 9.4.16

Pour Yourself In
Water Communion Homily
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
September 4, 2016

I imagine a circle of women gathered around an empty bowl, with small pitchers of water in front of them.  These women at the 1980 Women and Religion Continental Convocation of Unitarian Universalists, these women in a small group led by Carolyn McDade and Lucille Schuck Longview, are about to share a new ritual for the first time.

Each of them pours a little water into the bowl, and speaks of the work they are doing for the rights and the health and the spiritual lives of women in their home towns.  Sharing the stories and mingling the water shows that they are connected.  They live far apart and each one brings something different, and yet they are working together.

Like most of the powerful rituals that have grown out of the women’s spirituality movement, this new one is built around a fundamental element of life:  earth, air, fire, water.  This one is water, the birthing place of life, symbol of the tides and the cycles of life.  It is physical, not just words spoken.  It represents something real and significant in each person’s life.  It shows that they are all part of something larger.  Those are things that make rituals powerful, and this one has a profound effect.  It is so moving that many of the participants take it home, and teach it to their own circles and their congregations.

And from that small beginning, the ritual we call the Water Communion has become a treasured part of the life of many Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many, like us, share it during a service that’s often called “Ingathering,” a service that marks the end of summer and the beginning of the church program year.

It’s changed over time.  Nowadays we bring our own water, from many sources.  Sometimes, in some communities over the years, there’s been a little bit of a feeling of dueling summer vacations, and some folks have felt left out.  In most places, though, like we do here, the focus is not just on where the water comes from, but on what it represents in our lives.  And of course our circles are much larger now, so we each say just a few words.

And this water we mingle together is a symbol of our life here in this community of love we call the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.   Just as it did from the beginning, the Water Communion shows how each of us brings something different, something special and important to the life we share together.  I think it shows something else too, something about the community life we make together.  The life of a community is created one tiny bit at a time, just as this water is a gathering of single drops creating one larger whole.

We grow our community one drop at a time.

Here’s a drop. . . . a smile on the face of someone you haven’t seen for a while, maybe even someone you don’t know. . .yet.

Here’s a drop. . . . a hand reaches out to touch someone who lives alone, someone who may not be touched in a caring way by another human being even once in the whole week between Sunday services.

And here’s a drop. . . . a child builds a connection with an adult they’re not related to, someone who thinks they are important, someone who treats them like their opinion is worth hearing.

And here’s another drop. . . you learn about the life of someone you probably would never have spoken to anywhere but here, and suddenly justice feels  personal to you.

And here’s another. . . a musician spends hours preparing a gift which touches all our hearts.

And another drop, and another. . . a friend stops by to see you in the hospital. . . a face lights up when you share an idea that sheds new light in someone’s life. . . a minister hands a rose without thorns to a baby, who takes a big bite out of it . . . a simple dinner dropped off at someone’s door changes their whole experience of that day. . . an elder spends an hour in the company of a first grader . . . .

Drop by drop, moment by moment, touch by touch, story by story.   This is how we gather in community.  This is the very water of life, the life we share together, the life which is made more rich by what each of us brings—the life which enriches each of us.

What do you bring?  The community comes to life for you—as it does for all of us—when you pour yourself in.

Sermon – We Would Be One 8.21.16

We Would Be One
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
August 21, 2016

Some twenty-five years ago, I walked through the doors of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina with an urgent need for community and a chip on my shoulder big enough to use for furniture.  I had left the Roman Catholicism of my childhood behind fifteen years before, a casualty of a too-short reading list that left me with the mistaken idea that I knew everything worth knowing about religion, and all of it was bad.  I wore my atheism proudly and sometimes loudly, and I was sure you could make a good life without religion of any kind.  And yet. . . we found ourselves in a situation we knew we could not handle alone.  My wife Jessie and our three-year-old daughter Garner had just moved to a city where we knew no one, and Jessie had been diagnosed with an illness that is always eventually fatal.  We needed people.  And both of us had grown up in churches where supportive, caring communities could be found.

So we talked with a lot of people, and someone suggested this religion we’d never really heard of, and in we came.  I had a list of things people might say that would make me walk out—too much god-talk, anything about mysteries and miracles, sin, Christ on the cross saving the world, on and on.  And top of the list was anything about anybody claiming the authority to ever be able to speak for me about anything.

Nobody said any of those things.  Here was a whole idea of what religion could be that I had never imagined: about how you live every day; about celebrating the everyday miracle of this life in this world; about becoming an active partner in moving the moral universe toward justice and compassion.  I even took a class called “Building your own theology.”  This was religion?  The sheer freedom of it, the liberation from what I had experienced as a tyrannical approach to faith, was amazing.  I was hooked.

Cheryl Walker, minister of our Wilmington, NC congregation and the incoming president of the UU Minister’s Association, had a similar experience in her first visits to the Community Church of New York City, one of several UU congregations there.  Growing up in a Nation of Islam family, she had left as an adult because she felt pressured not to be her whole self, and to follow rules she didn’t believe in.  Here’s how she describes her “new UU” feeling:

“I fell in love with being an individual in a religious community,” she says.  “. . . . I was like a kid in a candy store.  Me, me, me.  My faith, my journey, my religion.  It’ all about me.  This religion was created with me in mind, just waiting for the day that I would show up and make it complete.  Thank you very much, all you people who came before me, whoever you were, for making a religion just for me.”

Does this sound familiar at all?  Now, I know everybody who finds our faith doesn’t have this kind of experience, and of course some of us grow up UU, but I’ve heard something pretty similar from a lot of people, and they weren’t all folks who wound up becoming ministers, so it’s not just church-geeks this happens to.

For many of us, if not most of us, one central feature that sets our faith community apart is the respect we give to freedom and self-determination.  We celebrate the unique individuality of every precious person as a gift. We acknowledge no higher authority in spiritual understanding than the conscience of the sincere, responsible seeker.  We find free thought more trustworthy than any settled dogma.  We see no sanctuary more sacred than the unforced mind.

Seen from this angle, the history of our faith is a centuries-long story of individual free-thinking heroes one after another proposing new religious ideas, often at great risk to themselves.  Then in the 19th century, an ordained Unitarian minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson put the finishing touch on the story by declaring that individual freedom of conscience and suspicion of authority are the foundations of any faith adequate to the needs of a free society in the modern, scientific age.  Celebrating individuality, freedom of thought, and self-reliance is a precious part of our religious heritage—and our present.  We’re a heretic’s faith, if you take that word “heretic” back to its root, which simply means “to choose.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to today.  Our love of individualism has developed a shadow.

Fred Muir, who leads our Annapolis, Maryland congregation, says we have taken our commitment to individual autonomy so far that we are at risk of becoming the iChurch, a name he takes from the enigmatic lowercase “i” Apple uses to identify its products.  The “i” might mean “internet,” but more likely it stands for, well, “I.”  As in Individual; as in a piece of technology that is mine alone, and will set me free from conformity and ugly design features.

In the iChurch, the individual is the center of the Universe.  Any single person can block the community’s processes and reset the community’s agenda, because the community doesn’t want to compromise the sacred freedom of the individual.  The iChurch deeply mistrusts authority and power, because structured authority limits individual freedom.  It’s the Emersonian ideal curdled into dogma.

The challenge of a faith built entirely around individualism is that it can’t give what most of us come to any religion for in the first place.  What brought me to the UU Church of Charlotte, what brought Cheryl Walker to the Community Church of New York, what brings so many people through our doors every year is a hunger for community.

You can’t build true community in a faith that worships individual autonomy. Cheryl Walker puts it this way: “True community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group.  If this doesn’t happen, then we are merely a group of individuals sharing common space but not becoming a community.”

Or as one of my mentors in ministry, Gordon McKeeman, used to say:  “We need to decide if we are a congregation, or just an aggregation.”

We each come to a moment of decision in our own way.  For Cheryl Walker it was realizing that there was a power for social justice and resistance to oppression in the unity of her Nation of Islam childhood that she was missing in her new religious home.  For me it was realizing that my trust in community had become so strong, so sacred that most of my anti-authoritarianism and resistance to traditional religious language had dissolved.  For some it’s realizing that some hurt or brokenness in the world or in their own life is too great to be held and healed by a group of nice people who get together for interesting conversations.  However it comes to us, we arrive at the realization that we need true community.

The good news is that right alongside the saga of religious freedom and individualism, another story has been unfolding.  For as long as we have seen ourselves as religious communities, Unitarians and Universalists—and the Puritans and Congregationalists who were their ancestors—have been asking: How do you create a religious community that protects individual freedom of conscience, a true community that protects the democratic distribution of authority and power?

You can find our solution on the same page in your hymnal as the Principles, way down at the bottom.  It’s a simple sentence:  “As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”

Covenant is a heritage which has been with us as long as the heritage of individualism, though we haven’t always valued it as highly.  Covenant is a commitment to intentionally set boundaries on our autonomy, in order to create community together.

Our opening hymn today, “We Would Be One,” was created in 1953 by Samuel Wright, a minister who served as an adult leader for national youth groups.  He combined the familiar tune “Finlandia” with new words for a very special occasion.  At a joint meeting in 1954, the national youth groups of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America voted to merge to create a new community called Liberal Religious Youth.  They beat their adult religious associations to Consolidation by 7 years.

Wright’s hymn names the kind of community the young people hoped to create together, and it is only partly about the personal spiritual quest, the search for “greater understanding of who we are, and what in us is true.”  The new community they sought was also dedicated to building a better world for tomorrow; it sought to find the deep common identity that binds us all together and guides us through life.  It is pledged to greater service, to love and justice.

In musical form, the hymn expresses a covenant.

The reading we shared in response to the Offering today is another covenant, created by James Vila Blake and adopted by the Unitarian Church of All Souls in Evanston, Indiana in 1894.

We have our own covenant, which you’ll find on the back of your Order of Service.  These are the commitments we’ve made to each other as we joined this congregation, and they are the foundation for our community life.

The community’s covenant is the place where I gives way to we, where I cede some measure of my autonomy to the process, the authority, and the needs of the community.  It names the higher purpose that brings us together; it is the common value to which each of us agrees to make ourselves accountable.

In recent years, Unitarian Universalists have begun to use the phrase “Beloved Community” to express our vision of a world of justice, equity, and compassion, where each precious individual is connected to all in an interdependent web of relationship.  Dr. King brought this phrase of the philosopher Josiah Royce into the Civil Rights movement as a way of envisioning the Kingdom of God which we are called to create on this earth.  One writer describes Beloved Community as “an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things.”

In the isolating, dehumanizing culture of consumption—call it the iWorld—that surrounds us, and inflicts such devastation on our environment and on the lives of oppressed people, the vision of Beloved Community has the power to transform and heal the human family and the world.  It has the power to bring comfort, healing, commitment, and joy into the lives of people who have walked too long in the iWorld alone.  This is what most spiritual seekers come to religious communities looking for today.  It is what most of us need.  Will we create it together?

The covenant we share, and the Principles and Sources that make up the Covenant connecting us to the other congregations of our faith, are a path toward creating Beloved Community here among us, so that we can learn how to live into its power ourselves, and how to offer it to a world which needs it so much.  Living in covenant does not diminish our individuality, it enriches and enlarges it.

May we work together in love and in celebration of life, promising to one another our mutual trust and support, to build Beloved Community—around us and among us.

Sermon – A Larger Hope 8.7.16

A Larger Hope
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
August 7, 2016

When the environmental activist and spiritual educator Joanna Macy looks at the situation we’re facing in the world today, the picture she sees is bleak.  She uses social critic David Korten’s expression “The Great Unravelling” to describe the results of centuries of “business as usual” in an industrial-growth economy that has simply failed to take into account the long-term consequences of our actions.  

The “Great Unravelling” has multiple interlocking components:  Economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, social divisions and unrest, war among nations, and the mass extinction of species.  If things continue as they’re going now, not only species but whole ecosystems will simply disappear, including this wonderful lacework of earth and ocean we’re living on.  Social systems that have stood for centuries could collapse as long-festering systemic inequalities and oppressions intersect with competition for increasingly scarce resources.  The situation is dire, and it is beginning to appear that a cascading series of events may have already been set into motion that will have devastating effects for many years to come.  

Now, I know how I want this story to go.  In the hopeful narrative of my imagination, a series of global agreements like the Paris Accords will come together; the enlightened self-interest of entrepreneurial thinkers will lead us to fully develop renewable energy, clean manufacturing, and sustainable agriculture; movements for social change will finally crack the systems of dominance and privilege that have been baked into human relations for thousands of years.  The catastrophe will be averted, and without too much disruption to my comfortable way of life, an age of global peace and prosperity will emerge.  Our descendants seven generations from now will look back at us and say, “That turn-of-the-millennium generation in the early two thousands—they finally got it; they made all the difference.  Bless them all.”

Isn’t that how we want it to be?  

If I could be sure that the movements so many of us support, either intellectually, financially, or with our own labor and lives are going to be successful, it would be so easy to get up and go on every day, to pick myself up and pitch myself into the work of building the world we dream about.  Wouldn’t it?  I could take up the task at hand with confidence and conviction and the joyful knowledge that I am part of a progress that will make all the difference in the world.

The hopeful picture I have in mind is possible; it could really happen.

But it may not turn out like that.

The truth is we don’t really know what level of loss is already inevitable.  We don’t know how much we’ll be able to save and restore, or whether the life of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be easier than ours, or harder.  And some of what has happened already—deforestation, damage from wildfires, species lost, lives afflicted by drought and famine, or disfigured by the domination of oppressive forces—so much of what is already true just breaks our hearts to think about.

So where does our hope come from, the hope that keeps us engaged and committed even when things look bad, the hope strong enough to sustain even a broken heart, the hope that isn’t just blindly believing that “everything’s going to be all right?”

Joanna Macy says this:  “The word hope has two different meanings.  The first involves hopefulness, where our preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen.  If we require this kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our response gets blocked in areas where we don’t rate our chances too high.”  

“The second meaning,” she goes on to say, “is about desire. . . . knowing what we hope for and what we’d like, or love, to take place.  It is what we do with this hope that really makes the difference.”

Macy proposes what she calls “Active Hope.”  “Passive hope,” she says, “is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire.  Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.”

Macy’s “active hope” is a practice, not a feeling.  It starts with gratitude, with naming and giving thanks for what and who we love.  Next we acknowledge the whole reality of whatever situation we’re in, including its difficult aspects.  And finally, we decide what it is we can actually do to serve, to nurture, to heal, or to defend what we love.  Action becomes our hope:  Committed action for what we love and value most.  What we love and what we choose to do for it becomes our source of strength and inspiration, rather than any expectation or wish for how things will turn out in the end.

The open sentences on gratitude we shared a little while ago are an exercise from Joanna Macy’s 2012 book Active Hope:  How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. The book is both a theoretical exploration and a practical guide to the work Macy has been doing for many years with groups all over the world.   

When I was fortunate enough to take part in one of those workshops along with UU clergy colleagues from around the country a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that there was a remarkable power in learning to practice hope that’s not dependent on optimism.  As I considered my own engagement, my “active hope” serving what I love most about this wonderful, suffering world of ours, I realized that I was becoming part of a larger hope, a global movement of hope for our world, that connected me with everyone else in the gathering, and with all the people who have experienced what Macy calls “the work that reconnects,” and with others whose love for our world is expressed in ways I know nothing about.

The point of active hope isn’t to succeed or to win, I realized.  The point is to live my life more fully by being part of that larger hope.

Macy’s work is all about the intersecting global crises of ecology, economics, and politics that are confronting us right now, and she outlines the practice of Active Hope in that context.  But as I felt the movement of that larger hope in myself, I realized that this practice can be a lens for looking at life.  The lens of active hope can help me see more clearly where hope might be found in any situation that tests my reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness.  It’s not only our hopes for making justice or saving the world that can get us locked into a vision of a particular outcome; it can happen with our hopes for the realities of everyday living, or for the seismic changes that life brings to every single one of us.

There is nothing in ministry more sacred to me than the opportunity to walk with people as they experience the simple and the very complex moments that make up the journey of their lives.  So often when I’ve been entrusted with those holy moments, I’ve been struck by the way we commit ourselves to a desired outcome, making that the foundation of our hope.  It’s so easy to fall into.  You know what it sounds like:  

“That’s it:  I’m wasting too much time.  From now on it’s work only on that computer—I’ve played my last game of solitaire and I’ll never log into Facebook again.”

“My kids are going to grow up knowing that there’s only one race, the human race, and that the color of their skin doesn’t have any significance for their life.”

“She’s had two falls, she forgets things, and she isn’t safe.  I need you to help me convince her she needs to be in assisted living now.”  

“Yes, he does have a terrible temper, and I’m scared sometimes, but I don’t believe in divorce.  He’s really all right as long as I keep him happy.”

“We’re going to lick this stupid disease.”

Many of these are hopeful goals for people to have, and if naming this kind of hope helps someone living in a difficult situation, I would never just say “Listen, it may not turn out like that.”  

And yet, the truth is we really don’t know what’s going to happen. As Macy points out, if your hope requires you to believe without a moment’s doubt that things will turn out in one particular way, then your hope is fragile; it may collapse into despair and paralysis if the desired outcome starts to look unlikely.  For our own lives as well, and for those we love, we need a more resilient hope.

Of course, even as I recognize it in someone I’m accompanying, I realize how often I find myself anchoring my hope in optimism for a particular outcome.  If we bring the practice of active hope into these moments, we might ask ourselves first to look more deeply toward what we’re grateful for, toward what we love.  Our hope, our active hope, is what we do for what—and who—we love most.

If I’m most grateful for my beloved’s wit and loving spirit, then my active hope can be to help her hold onto that sense of herself in the midst of whatever rigors her medical treatment brings, whether it is successful or not.  Every laugh we share is an act of hope.

If you’re most grateful for your children’s strong sense of joy, your active hope can be to support and celebrate that with them even as you accept the truth that they will encounter harsh realities in their lives, even as you let them know you will believe them when they tell you what they experience.

If we’re most grateful for an aging loved one’s fearless approach to life, then our active hope might just have to be to set aside our fear for them, and to understand that they may need to choose the amount of risk they live with.

This is the practice of active hope:  Hold gratitude as your starting place.  Let love—what you love, who you love, how you love—let love be your guide as you choose how you will take part in the story of your life and in the other stories your life touches.

Whether we are seeking to improve our own experience of life, or to engage more lovingly with our life’s companions, or to make a more just and life-sustaining society, when we engage in this practice, we become part of a hope larger than our own immediate concern, larger than our wish for some particular outcome.  

My acts of love are part of a larger love.  My acts of care are part of a larger embrace.  My acts to comfort the afflicted, to heal the sick, to bring relief to the poor and the oppressed, are part of a larger movement of compassion.  My acts of justice-making are part of a larger movement to bring the beloved, undivided family of humankind, of all life, into being.

What do you love?  Who do you love?  What are you most grateful for?  May these be the sources of your own active hope, and may they bring joy, richness, beauty, and courage into every moment of your life.  May all our active hopes engage us in the healing and celebration of this one, precious world which is our home and our hope.

Sermon – Invisible Hands 7.31.16

Invisible Hands
Rev. David A. Morris
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks
July 31, 2016

The screen panel above the counter slides open and the frozen custard cone appears in front of you.  You take it and balance it, pass back money and get your change and stroll off, licking the drips up the sides of your delicious treat.

You pull up to the window and it opens automatically; you hold out a credit card and it disappears inside; a cup of coffee and a glazed sour-cream donut floats into your hands and then the credit card comes back with a receipt, and a barely audible “thank you, enjoy your day” follows you as you pull away.

It’s raining and windy, a good day to stroll the stores down at the Tanger Outlets.  You make a few stops, and come away with those new board shorts you had in mind, a couple of nice shirts, a new Corningware saucepan you’ve been needing and a clever kitchen gadget or two.  At each stop you interact for a few seconds with someone who smiles, doesn’t say much, takes your money and hands you your packages.

You’re distracted by a message that pops up on your phone while you wait for your double-shot iced Mochaccino with the almond milk.  As you stand in front of the counter your drink appears and a voice calls your name, and since you’ve already paid for it you just pick it up and head over to a table, sipping sweet coolness while you read.

As you drive along the bypass looking for that thrift shop you’re sure was between milepost 10 and 12 somewhere, it occurs to you that the grounds of all the stores and restaurants always seem to be trimmed and edged, grass watered just right, steps swept clean, trash cans always in the right place.  You try to remember for a moment if you’ve ever seen somebody do those things.  

It’s summer in the Outer Banks, and we are surrounded by people who make our lives better—a little nicer, a little simpler, a little quicker and smoother than they might otherwise be.  The vast array of grocery stores, shops, restaurants, services, adventure centers, recreational retailers, rental houses and hotel rooms that makes this such a pleasant, always lively place to come for a vacation or to live during the season is in full swing.  Of course, the beach and the Sounds are the most important things, the real center of attention—but the rest of our needs are served by an army of invisible hands.  They cut grass, keep the vines down, and trim hedges; they clean rooms, maintain tennis courts and golf courses and swimming pools; they sell us things, prepare our food, serve our tables, mix our drinks, and clean up after us.

They’re everywhere, and yet it’s easy not to really notice them.  In fact most of our interactions with the invisible hands that smooth our way in the world are structured so that we won’t notice.  Cleaners and maintenance people are supposed to get in, do the job, and move on.  In the retail world, the relationship is really supposed to be between the consumer and the goods they might buy; the live person is supposed to facilitate that relationship and if possible to gently encourage it to be a little larger than the consumer originally had in mind—but mostly just to make it easy and quick.  

Real restaurants are a little different; the experience of being there is part of their product, and so servers are generally more personable.  Of course, if the majority of their compensation is tips, the stakes on friendliness go up. And most of the people who make a real, table-service restaurant go are not visible from the front of the house where the customers are.

It’s not easy, being part of the unnoticed army of invisible hands who keep our vacation-based economy working smoothly.  A series of articles last fall in the Coastland Times called “The Hidden Epidemic” looked at poverty in our area.  Reporter Catherine Kozak wrote that “Dare County is populated largely by people who work in low-to-moderate paying jobs that serve a booming tourism industry. . . .”  

Kozak cited one study’s finding that the average weekly wage in the food and accommodation services sector here in the Outer Banks in 2014 was $432.  This would amount to about $22,000 a year, which a recent MIT study determined is a living wage in our area—for a single person living alone.  I would observe, though, that Kozak’s weekly wage is an average; many service-sector jobs are at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which amounts to $15,000 a year if you’re full time.  In reality, of course, in our extremely seasonal economy, most of these jobs are part-time, and do not last the whole year; many workers are people with families.  That MIT study calculated that a “living wage” for two adults and two children in our area would be $50,000 a year.

In Catherine Kozak’s words, “Constant economic struggle is a fact of life for many who work here, often at multiple jobs, hoping to stash away enough in the busy season to survive the winter doldrums when the unemployment rate can be twice what it is in the summer.”  She goes on to say: “On the Outer Banks, even a college degree is not a guarantee against economic struggle. It’s no surprise to see your kid’s kindergarten teacher serving your dinner at a restaurant or cleaning hot tubs. Some teachers work three jobs . . . to patch together enough to take care of their family.”

Many of us have served in the army of invisible hands—temporarily, or as a first job starting out in the world of work.  My first job was in retail, folding tie-dyed t-shirts and talking customers into bell-bottoms, granny dresses, and groovy polyester shirts at the Mod Shop, part of the retail store for military people and their families at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina.  I worked my way through my first two years of college as a pair of invisible hands behind an ice cream freezer—a soda jerk or an ice cream jock, depending on where you grew up.  I always smile when I hear jobs like that referred to as “unskilled labor;” I remember how long it took to learn to make a scoop that wouldn’t fall off a cone and how to shoot the soda into the glass and not spray ice cream and foam all over the backsplash and shelves behind the fountain.  Forty years later I’ve still got a pretty critical eye when I go to Big Buck’s.  

Many of us have done that kind of work.  Some of us are part of the army of invisible hands even now, as a way to earn a little extra money or to keep ourselves active and engaged in the world.  Most of us, though, have not experienced or even imagined this kind of work as the ongoing, long-term, defining reality of our working life.  

The journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich spent two years doing minimum-wage, service-sector work as research for her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.  She found that far from being “unskilled,” the work our country values least economically requires workers to be alert, focused, quick-thinking, and flexible, and demands considerable stamina in the face of long hours, often uncomfortable conditions, and repetitive but physically demanding tasks.  

In addition to the stress of holding jobs that don’t pay enough to live on, Ehrenreich also found that the emotional environment of service-sector, hourly work is often stressful and degrading; the practices of supervision are frequently built around an assumption that workers are unintelligent, lazy, likely to steal, and in need of constant, close oversight.  Lack of job security often adds to the stress.

A more recent book, Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman, focuses in on the restaurant industry, where often employees are paid as little as $2.00 an hour on the sometimes true, but usually false assumption that tips will somehow make up a living wage.  Jayaraman chronicles conditions which often include the absence of grievance procedures, raises, sexual harassment policies, paid sick days, job security, and anti-discrimination policies.  

And yet, as our reading points out, we depend on workers taking and keeping these jobs.  The work of invisible hands is the foundation of the economic system that we all participate in, although some of us benefit more than others from that participation.  As Ehrenreich says, “To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”

What do we owe our nameless benefactors, the people whose work sustains the economy of this place we love and appreciate so much, even as they themselves are most often too busy or too poor to take full advantage of its many delights?

In recent years, the realities of income inequality have become a much more frequent part of our public conversation, although political rhetoric focuses more often on the “one percent” at the top rather than the folks on the lower steps of the pyramid.  The push for an increased federal minimum wage is an important and a hopeful part of that conversation.  Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door has led to the creation of “Restaurant Opportunities Centers United,” an organization that advocates for what they call “The High Road to Profitability,” a set of sustainable, compassionate practices that balance worker justice with a recognition of the need of restaurant owners to make money for everyone’s long term benefit.  

One of the explorations I’ll offer to lead this year will start with a shared reading of Jayaraman’s book using a “Common Read” study guide from the UUA.  From there we can consider whether there are ways that we as individuals or as a community want to become engaged in working for a more equitable model.  It’s about more than just being generous when we go out.  As the Restaurant Opportunities Center website says, “Tipping better is great, but it cannot be the only thing that we do to change this industry because we need this industry to change systematically.”

There’s another important starting place for me, one that grows out of the long story of who we are as a religious community.  Our great heritage is the bedrock conviction that there are no divisions in humanity, no lives unworthy of attention or compassion, no people whose lives matter more—or less—than any others.  We know, at the core of our shared understanding of humanity, that in every single person there are immense, extraordinary possibilities.

Perhaps our first responsibility to the people who make our lives easier and better is to make the invisible visible.  As things are now, it’s an open secret that the way of life that makes the Outer Banks so attractive for so many people actively depends on some folks living marginal lives.  Can we break the secret?  Can we risk the discomfort of learning where our own actions, our own behaviors are supporting and sustaining that systemic inequality?  

Most of us know someone—and some of us know many people—living as part of the army of anonymous donors who support the larger community’s prosperity.  Can we risk honest conversations about what their lives are like, about what their dreams are, about what changes might make a real difference, about why those changes haven’t happened yet?  Do we dare to talk about how it feels to acknowledge our different roles in a system that treats us differently, a system we didn’t make, but which we have all long since learned to live with?  Once we begin to have those conversations, will there be anything that can keep us from seeking to make change?  

Step by step the longest march can be won, the great Union anthem we sang for our meditation hymn says.  The first step is always human connection.  The next step will be there waiting for us.

Love will guide us.