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George Stephens, Lisa Null, Saul Brody, Brendan Phillips, Terry Leonino, Duncan Phillips, Greg Artzner, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer "Singing Through the Hard Times"

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Dan Schatz, Saul Broudy, Brendan Phillips, Duncan Phillips, Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer “Singing Through the Hard Times” in 2010

When I was a very small child and I needed comfort for whatever reason, sometimes my mother would sit up on her bed and take out her guitar. I would sit beside her and she would sing to me. It didn’t really matter what the song was; I sang with her, and we would make music together. It was closeness and connection, a reminder that not everything had to be hard. There was goodness to be found.

Recently many of us have needed that kind of comfort. The rise of open race hatred, misogyny and religious intolerance in the United States and elsewhere is terrifying. For many it has been a wake up call, bringing new clarity to the work we have before us. There are entire communities at risk, and it is up to each and all of us to be allies to these communities and to one another.  There are principles of human rights, human dignity, and respect for the environment which will need defending.

But it can be hard to get started in that work when the weight of it seems so heavy. After all, the usual day to day events of our lives go on – school, work, getting ready for the holidays, and everything else that fills our attention.  When we combine all of these things with the national mood, it becomes easy to get depressed or defeated, or to turn our attention entirely away from the need that seems so much greater than our ability to help.

That’s where the singing comes in. Several years back, when I was producing a CD to honor the folksinger Utah Phillips, I learned a relatively unknown song of his called “Singing Through the Hard Times,” which eventually became the title of our album. “We are singing through the hard times,” he wrote, “working for the good times to come.” These were exactly the kinds of times he was thinking about when he came up with this verse:

And when the war clouds gather, it’s so easy to get angry
And just as hard not to be afraid.
But you know in your own heart, no matter what happens
You just can’t turn your back and walk away.  

Our “singing through the hard times” may take any number of forms; it doesn’t need to be musical. We might share food, do art, or enjoy conversations with people we love. We might come together in congregations, gatherings or holiday celebrations. Whatever it is that we do, it will be important to keep our spirits whole and strengthen our hearts as well as our communities for the work ahead of us.

Then we do the work.  Bringing “the good times” will take the dedicated effort of a great many people, and we know it won’t be easy. It will be up to all of us together to protect those who are unsafe, speak up for those whose voices are taken away, rebuild broken relationships and begin to create new and stronger ones with all kinds of people. That’s our task, and as daunting as it is, others have done this work before, and successfully. Now it is our turn.

So hand in hand together, we help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it and walk and talk and give it
The world of peace won’t be so far away.

Sing through the hard times. Work for the good times to come.

“Singing Through the Hard Times,” from the Righteous Babe CD, with footage from U. Utah Phillips

 

 

 

Election Day this year has been a long time coming. It’s as late as it can be in November, and this year it feels even later than that.  A great many of us are ready for this to be over.

As a minister serving a congregation, I always feel torn during elections.  There’s a delicate balancing act involved in speaking our values with all the passion that is their due without crossing the line into electioneering.  When we feel passionately about a candidate, and when that passion arises in part from religious conviction, it can be hard to set the work of the campaign apart from the work of the congregation.  I find myself speaking passionately from the pulpit about social justice and encouraging members to vote and help others vote in any way we can, while carefully maintaining the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

But elections like this one are difficult in another, more subtle way.  During especially divisive campaigns, we sometimes find ourselves wondering about our most treasured values.  Candidates may say and do things we find morally reprehensible, and supporters of one side or the other may do some things we consider even worse. Unitarian Universalists like myself affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, but we sometimes find it tough to concede the worth and dignity of candidates we vehemently oppose.  We speak of the right of conscience and of acceptance of one another, but may find it hard to be accepting of family, neighbors and frends who see things very differently than we do.  Other religions face similar dilemmas, perhaps viewing all people as children of a living God, while finding it difficult to acknowledge the divine spirit within those whose words or actions cause harm to others.  Those without any religious affiliation deal with the same issue, as all people do whenever our deeply held values come into tension with one another.  Language and beliefs vary, but the challenge is remarkably constant.

No matter who wins this election, on November 9 we will all have work to do.  Issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic and environmental justice will still need to be addressed, along with many others.  We will have work ahead of us to rebuild the respectful community that has been damaged by the rhetoric of such a harsh campaign, and to create a new and better society that honors diversity.  This, as much as anything else, is the work of my faith and many others.

My prayer and my wish is that we enter this task with compassion and open hands, creating connections and
building bridges among people of every political stripe.  Despite our political differences, we and our neighbors have far more in common than divides us – love for family and friends, simple human compassion and kindness, the realities of human suffering and frailty, the experience of awe at the beauty of Autumn.  May we nurture our connections with every kind of person, so that we truly learn to live the spirit of love, this year and every year.

When conservative activist Marco Gutierrez warned about the consequences of a loss for his side in November – “taco trucks on every corner” – the internet rejoiced. “I’m not seeing a downside here,” any number of people commented. A friend pointed out that panang curry trucks would be nice too, and it would be awfully helpful to have easy access to some good shwarma and tabouli, along with a real New York bagel.

Our conversations about immigration in the United States have tended to center around fear. It is, after all, normal to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand. The problem is that when we hold our debate on these terms – one side expressing anxiety, the other reassuring – we miss the real benefits cultural diversity brings.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I live in a world defined by differences. My faith is rooted in the idea that we are stronger when we’re surrounded by people of many backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, abilities, cultures, gender identities and sexual orientations. Each week I preach the value of a community of diversity, in which all of us deepen through our connections with people who don’t see the world as we do, or have different life experiences, or bring different gifts and perspectives. Each week we remind one another that we grow when we interact meaningfully with people who are different from us.

This isn’t just a religious idea. It is the best of what America can be – a country in which we learn from differences, honoring the unique cultures which have come together to make our diverse society. Every culture has value. In my America the cultures of the West Virginia hollers, North Philadelphia neighborhoods and Latino communities of South Texas each form an essential part of a rich whole. In my America we embrace not only the food and the music of every culture, but also the wisdom.

I believe in an America in which we don’t just tolerate differences – we celebrate them.

Yes, America needs more taco trucks. We also need more Asian festivals, more pow-wows, more African American poetry, more old time fiddle music, hip hop and banghra, more mosques and temples and gurdwaras, more Humanist societies, more diverse churches of every stripe. We need more libraries filled with books by every kind of author. We need real community shared with thoughtful neighbors of every political persuasion. We have moved beyond the old idea of a melting pot, in which each of our cultures loses its distinctiveness; instead we are a tapestry, woven together by our connections and conversations. We are better when we are not all the same.

Politics aside, I think the United States is moving in this direction. It is the inevitable product of a world in which communication across cultures has become the norm. That world may be frightening, sometimes – the unfamiliar often is – but if we embrace its promise, there is no end to the wonders and wisdom that await.

Becoming Hope

IMG_2222 2Easter was a challenge this year, for all sorts of reasons.  It’s not the easiest holiday for most Unitarian Universalists to begin with – the majority of us do not identify as Christians, and those who do generally emphasize the teachings of the human Jesus of Nazareth over stories of a physically risen Christ.  Yet it’s also important, because the metaphor of resurrection – in spirit if not in body – is powerful when the spirit within us seems to have died.  The day is a reminder of hope and promise, despite every difficulty.

This year, looking out at the world, the difficulties are obvious and hope has seemed especially hard to find.  It’s difficult not to feel hopeless and helpless when so many of the loudest voices in society respond to terrorist violence by further victimizing the refugees whose lives have been most damaged and remain most in danger.  It’s hard not to feel lost when we hear the bitter words of White supremacy echoing openly once more in our own country.  We feel heartbroken when states pass laws banning the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human beings, and offer cash rewards for turning them in, like Judas and his thirty pieces of silver.

I said all of this in my message on Sunday – but I noted that we continue on regardless, just as people did two thousand years ago, and just as people everywhere have always done.  Sometimes, the work that needs doing outweighs the grief, and sometimes in the process of doing it despite it all we start to realize that the beauty and joy still in the world are just as real as any hardship and suffering.  We find hope and renewal by becoming it.

I finished the service with a prayer, which I give to you in somewhat modified form.  It was written as an Easter prayer, but it needn’t be.  Hope and renewal need never be limited to one day or time of year.

~

A Prayer of Hope in a Time of Terror

God of many names and no name,
Spirit of hope and possibility,
ever growing and changing,
reborn each moment
with the turning of the world –

We have seen too many sorrows.

With the people of Brussels we have wept,
as we have wept with Ankara, Turkey,
Maiduguri, Nigeria,
Baghdad,
Paris,
San Bernardino, California,
the nation of Syria,
and so many others,
and as we weep today with the people of Lahore, Pakistan.
Our hearts cry out with all whose lives have been taken and torn.

We know that as war begets war,
hate begets hate
and fear becomes anger.
We are too tempted to respond
to the brokenness of the world
by fracturing it further.

In this, our season of rebirth,
may we meet death
with affirmations of life,
finding hope through destruction
as we give ourselves to the world’s renewal.

Today, we embrace the redemption of love
and begin the work of healing.

This we pray:
Let us become the resurrection.

Amen.

– Rev. Dan Schatz
March 27, 2016

school-926213_1920During his victory speech following the Nevada caucuses, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump raised eyebrows and chuckles when he recounted the groups which had voted in his favor.  “We won with poorly educated,” he said.  “I love the poorly educated.”  Within twenty minutes, television pundits had picked up on this.  References started appearing on social media.  Even National Public Radio got in on the joke.

Finding humor in a candidate appearing proud of supporters’ lack of education might be understandable, but the reaction also exposed something ugly in our society.  This laughter wasn’t really directed at the candidate; it was directed at the people, revealing a grain of truth behind stereotypes of liberal intellectual elites as snobs who don’t care about ordinary folks.

Our culture conflates formal education with human worth far too often.  Degrees, especially from elite universities, become symbols of status and privilege, while people labeled “poorly educated” become targets for derision. Many fall into the trap of assuming that all education takes place in schools, or become condescending to people they believe to be “less educated.” Formal education gets confused with intelligence, leading to a worldview in which people become problems to be solved or burdens to be dealt with rather than human beings who deserve respect. However unintentional such disregard is, its effects are real, lasting, and harmful.  Whatever our political leanings, we can and should be better than this.

Of course, it is one thing to talk about love and another to show it.  A politician’s highest expression of esteem becomes patronizing and cynical when it isn’t backed up with policy. Real love requires action.

In policy terms, love in action means giving all working people a living wage, so that the kinds of jobs typically taken by people with less schooling don’t result in a lifetime of poverty. It means funding public schools fairly, so that less affluent communities aren’t victimized by generations of educational neglect. Love means increasing access to college, but it also means honoring the needs and accomplishments of those who follow other paths.

On a personal level, love means treating all people with equal regard, whatever our education and theirs. It means finding the courage to connect as equals across educational lines, gaining wisdom and insight from all kinds of life experiences. Love means letting go of the assumptions and stereotypes our culture too often promotes, along with all remnants of condescension and judgment. Love means being able to value education without undervaluing any group of people. At its most basic, love means eye contact.

We should all love one another, whatever our respective levels of education, and our love should lead us to work for a more just and equitable society.  If that can happen, we will have taken a step closer to creating the genuine community our world needs.  Perhaps the “better educated” among us might even learn a thing or two.

Another pipeline burst this week – Santa Barbara, this time. It’s big news, and of course the web is filled with pictures of ruined coastlines. But there’s more to oil spills than beaches – Santa Barbara is home to a substantial fishing fleet, and there are many families who have made their living from these waters for generations.

Five years ago, when the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon dumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I sat down with my guitar and wrote:

Down to water’s edges in the first light of the sun
Where the fishermen are gathered by their moorings
Another day of labor on the waters off these shores
Is another week of food to raise your children
But the river’s running empty and the seas are growing warm
And the oil they spilled has poisoned all the fisheries
The catch is growing smaller ‘till there’s nothing left to find
But a job at some big box store in the city

And remember the years when the waters ran clear
And the fields restored the promise of the sowing
And the breezes blew clean and the warmth of Summer’s green
On ancient hills gave strength to keep us going

By comparison, the current is small at a nevertheless massive 105,000 gallons – still devastating to fish populations and the people who harvest them.

Refugio Oil Spill, May 19, 2015 photo by Zackmann08

Refugio Oil Spill, May 19, 2015
photo by Zackmann08

This is an old story, repeated all over the world – our thirst for cheap energy out competes small scale fishing and farming families who depend on a clean environment. The result is pollution from oil spills, leaky pipelines and dangerous oil rigs, coal ash from exploded mountaintops, toxic groundwater from fracking and steadily increasing global temperatures born of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Out among the furrows we’ve plowed these fifty years
My father’s hand and mine have made a living
Silver Queen in even years and soybeans in the off
Fed by waters rippling clear from Eastern mountains
But the hills are being leveled for the coal that lies within
And the brooks are flowing black with nature’s refuse
The soils are wrecked with cadmium; they’ve stripped the ridges bare
And we’ve watched our family’s pride all turned to wasteland

The destruction of local cultures and livelihoods doesn’t tend to get much press in the wake of a catastrophe like this, but it’s a real and lasting impact of our energy practices. We cannot separate sustainable food production from sustainable energy production – the one depends on the other.

One of the principles of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, speaks of “the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.” We forget the last six words at our peril – of which we are a part. Human beings do not simply impact the environment; we are impacted by the world we help to create. That our lives can never be separated from the whole is a truth both sacred and practical.

Despite the difficult news of the day, there are good reasons for hope. Awareness of our interdependence is growing, despite backlash from those who have the most to lose from a sustainable civilization. An increasingly connected world has led to more organizations, stronger networks, and better advocacy. More and more people try to eat locally and ethically, and sustainable energy is increasingly common.

My own contribution to this movement has been through music, and a new CD I’m just finishing. (If you would like to help with the CD, you can contribute to the funding campaign through June 3.) The idea is to bring together songs of farmers, fieldworkers, and fisherfolk, emphasizing the importance of sustainability, cultural heritage and social as well as environmental justice. For me these songs are a reminder of the common cause to be found across issues and cultures.

I won’t pretend to understand the reasons for it all
But I know we’ve wasted years in wrong directions
If the nourishment is stolen from the waters and the soil,
How are we to feed the generations?
But the answer lies within us and it’s only common sense –
To soil the pond we live in is disaster
Alone we’ll only crumble, but together we have power
To lift our hands and voices for the future

And to work for the years when the waters run clear
And the fields restore the promise of the sowing
And the breezes blow clean and the warmth of summer’s green
On ancient hills gives strength to keep us going

And keep us sowing

Selma to Montgomery March, 1965

Selma to Montgomery March, 1965

A couple of weeks ago at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship I spoke about race and racism in the United States, in a sermon called Listen to the Struggle – you can read and watch the entire sermon here.

Today, as the nation observes the anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, I simply want to share the prayer from that service – a prayer for hope and healing.

God of love and justice,
we cry out in hope and grief,
mourning the hard realization
that our nation has not yet fully come
to live the ideals of justice and equality,
hoping and working for the justice that is to come.

We cry for our lost heroes,
take their mantle and walk where they marched.
As we work for justice,
let us remember always the spirit of love,
that fierce and urgent love
that accepts no falsehoods or easy answers,
but that calls us onward,
that gives us the strength to face what we do not wish to see
and to hear what we do not wish to be told.

Let us reach out to one another,
and beyond our personal circles,
so that we as a nation may come to greater understanding,
and where we see injustice,
may we find courage to lift our voices
and move our bodies for what we believe in,
reaching out and reaching forward
in hope and healing.

Amen.

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