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In a service at the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester a few weeks ago, just before Yom Kippur, I spoke about the Jewish spiritual practice of teshuvah – turning in the heart. How do we turn, I asked, when the failings belong to all of society?

Today those failings are more in evidence than ever. Women and others who report sexual assault continue to find themselves ignored, blamed, and belittled by privileged men in power. Children continue to be separated from their parents at the border, even when the children are United States Citizens and the parents legal asylum seekers. Evidence of global climate change and our failure to address it is greater than ever.

In the pain of the news, I find myself coming back to the that service. Here are some of those words.

“There is a natural instinct in the face of overwhelming grief to cover our eyes with our hands. When we’re mourning, we tend to turn away from what is giving us pain and find whatever is most comfortable. A friend, a prayer, a song, a comforting phrase, we find something, anything, to take us away from the agony of the moment. It makes sense that we would do this; it’s part of being human.  We need to do this sometimes. As we grieve, eventually and slowly we allow ourselves to confront our sorrow, and we emerge wistful, perhaps wiser, certainly more empathetic. It is a healing process.

“In the grief of global and societal injustice, we naturally turn away, because it is our human instinct to do so, and hard truths cause us pain. The spiritual practice of turning bids us to uncover our faces, open our eyes, and turn back towards the pain.  

“Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that ‘prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.’ And he put those words to practice, marching in Selma with Dr. King and so many others. When he came home, he said, ‘I felt like I was praying with my feet.’

“I want to ask us to turn and face realities we would not like to admit, to accept the leadership of those who are most directly affected by those realities, and to pray with our feet. I want to ask us to let go of whatever stands in the way of this work, to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness whether we think we need to or not, to forgive others whether or not they have yet completed their own turning. I want us to look into our hearts, so filled with goodness and love, and remember why we care so much for other people, and this sacred earth.

“Then, we take that love, that goodness, and let it feed our living in the world, as we give ourselves to the work before us.”

Members of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester vigil in support of survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

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January Morning – a poem

photo by Dan Schatz

Each morning
in winter
I walk to the old dogwood tree
that stretches over the front yard.

I am waiting for a sign.

Through the earliest days
there is nothing to see
more than January ice,
hard against the ground,
then mud
as snows melt,
then ice again,

but one sunny morning
comes something new.

Powerful and green
daffodil shoots
begin to work their way above the soil.

Winter will be a long time yet.
More snows will come,
and ice
and cold
and April will seem distant.

Do not be afraid.

Hope will
push through
frozen ground,
always,
and forever.

Dan Schatz
January 23, 2018

 

 

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January is the time for New Year’s Resolutions, and in my social circle, Woody Guthrie’s 1943 “Rulin’s” make the rounds every year about this time:

woody-guthrie-resolutions

(click on photo to enlarge)

Normally, I’m not one for New Years Resolutions. I just don’t seem to have the knack of them.  This year I briefly toyed with the idea of resolving to spend less time on social media, and immediately went to post about it on Facebook before realizing that maybe that wouldn’t be my path forward. Most years, I try to spread the self-improvement out year round.

Still, I can get behind a list like Woody’s. I mean, here’s a guy who knows himself – both what he can do: “Wash teeth if any,” and what he needs to do: “Keep hoping machine running.” Taken as a whole, his list boils down to “Take care of yourself, take care of the people you love, be creative, and do your part for the world.” I think I could do that; I think any of us could. It’s as if Woody were saying, “Make this year count.  Don’t try to be anybody but yourself; just be a good Yourself.”

This year needs to count.  So I decided to come up with my own “New Year’s Rulin’s,” which I gladly share with you (sans doodles).  What would yours be?

Dan’s New Year’s Rulin’s 2017

1. Open your eyes.
2. Wake up before 11 every day.
3. Polish shoes.
4. Listen.
5. Be generous.
6. Open your heart.
7. Love like it matters.
8. Wash dishes.
9. Fold laundry.
10. Cut hair if any.
11. Pay attention to children – all children.
12. Forgive mistakes – mine and others.
13. Sing.
14. Write.
15. Remember.
16. Hope.
17. Enjoy world.
18. Change world.
19. Read.
20. Breathe.
21. Dream.
22. Resist injustice.
23. Build good.
24. Make time sacred.

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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

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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