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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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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

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Eberhart

Jonathan Eberhart 1942-2003

Lately I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Eberhart. Jonathan was a singer, amateur folklorist, gourmand, polyglot, and widely esteemed science journalist (he was the space exploration editor for Science News, and today there is an award in his name). He was also a family friend who I knew and admired from the time I was born. When I was five, he started teaching me Japanese, and I still remember a few words.

As a songwriter Jonathan was a true poet. One of his best songs, “Dawn,” retells the biblical story of creation – “not for religious reasons,” he wrote, “but simply to suggest the beauty and importance of a long-awaited occasion.” The lyrics are stunningly beautiful:

I’ll tell you a tale of the way the world grew
If I had the power I’d give it to you.
On the first day was nothing, neither left nor to right,
Till a voice rang eternal, saying “Let there be light.”

Yet the light omnipresent little wonder did yield.
‘Twas the coming of darkness light’s glory revealed.
One turn of the wheel, and daylight is gone,
But it’s night that enables the birth of the dawn.

That song helped me find a way into a part of the Bible that made no sense to me as a Religious Humanist. When I was younger, and thought of such texts as serious attempts by our ancestors to understand how the world came into being, I thought the creation stories worse than pointless, because they seemed to undermine anything worthwhile I might find in the rest of the book. They were magical, they contradicted each other, and they just didn’t make sense. That some people use these stories as justification for denying the truths of science bothered me even more.

Jonathan, who was in no way religious, found wonder and poetry in that old story, and as I listened to that song through the years, I began to find it too. I learned, as I have so many times before and since, that there are more kinds of truth than facts. There is insight, beauty, a sense of wonder, and an honoring of the world.

Jonathan’s song helped inspire a service I’m putting together this week on creation stories from various traditions, something Unitarian Universalists rarely talk about.  I’m learning “Dawn” for the occasion. It feels good, after so many years, to give voice this part of my spiritual journey and our religious heritage. It feels right to find new truths in old stories, to tell them again, to let the mythology be what it is and search for deeper truths.  It makes sense in every way to sing the beauty of the dawn.

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As a Unitarian Universalist minister, it is sometimes my role to answer correspondence that comes to our congregation from members of the community.  Last night, I received this brief note in my inbox:

Good Evening:

I am very upset at the signage that is outside of your church stating that “Black Lives Matter.” Since when has God chosen to see us by the color of our skin. The sign should be taken down and replaced with ALL LIVES MATTER. How will this nation of ours ever join together if we are constantly looking at everyone by their race. Unless you were actually there in Ferguson or in New York or Cleveland, you do not have all the facts.

A Bucks County Resident

It’s a sentiment I’d heard before, and I gave a great deal of thought before sending the following response:

“Dear [name],

Thank you for writing with your concern. Of course all lives matter. Central to Unitarian Universalism is the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Sadly, our society has a long history of treating some people as less valuable than others. Study after study has confirmed that in equivalent situations, African Americans and Latinos are treated with deadly force far more often than White people, and authorities held less accountable. Unfortunately, racial bias continues to exist even when it is no longer conscious – this too is confirmed by multiple studies. A lack of accountability in the use of force combined with unconscious bias is too often a deadly combination – and one that could place police officers, as well as the public, in great danger.

To say that Black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not; indeed, it is quite the reverse – it is to recognize that all lives do matter, and to acknowledge that African Americans are often targeted unfairly (witness the number of African Americans accosted daily for no reason other than walking through a White neighborhood – including some, like young Trayvon Martin, who lost their lives) and that our society is not yet so advanced as to have become truly color blind. This means that many people of goodwill face the hard task of recognizing that these societal ills continue to exist, and that White privilege continues to exist, even though we wish it didn’t and would not have asked for it. I certainly agree that no loving God would judge anyone by skin color.

As a White man, I have never been followed by security in a department store, or been stopped by police for driving through a neighborhood in which I didn’t live. My African American friends have, almost to a person, had these experiences. Some have been through incidents that were far worse. I owe it to the ideal that we share, the ideal that all lives matter, to take their experiences seriously and listen to what they are saying. To deny the truth of these experiences because they make me uncomfortable would be to place my comfort above the safety of others, and I cannot do that.

I very much appreciate you writing to me, and am glad that we share the goal of coming to a day when people will not be judged, consciously or unconsciously, on the basis of their race. I believe that day is possible, too, but that it will take a great deal of work to get there. That work begins by listening to one another, and listening especially to the voices of those who have the least power in society. If nothing else is clear from the past few weeks, it is painfully evident that a great many people do not believe that they are treated fairly. Healing begins by listening to those voices and stories.

Thank you again for writing me.

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz, Minister
BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship”

 

Sign outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Warrington, Pennsylvania

Sign outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Warrington, Pennsylvania

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When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger.  I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing.   My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again.  I learned every song.  And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did.  It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.

To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete.  Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of.  Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together.  In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.  I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall.  He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.

I won’t pretend that I knew him well.  If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself.  In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations.  Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.

And oh, what conversations they were.  I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away.  He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future.  With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him.  He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter.  “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”

Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs.  I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others.  I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from.  I learned the value in a story.

Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs.  He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence.  Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us.  And what a gift that is.

In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife.  He said,

Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.

Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen.  Knowing that brings comfort and tears.  They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.

Rest in peace, Pete.  Thank you.

 

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There’s a new movement receiving a great deal of attention lately.  The Sunday Assemblies have been growing and spreading in England in the United States, promising a congregational experience without God and touting the admirable motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more.”

I hadn’t paid them much attention, although what I’d heard had made me wonder whether they knew about Unitarian Universalism or Religious Humanism – and whether we might be a fit for these people. Then I heard an interview with the two founders, who made it very clear that they welcome people who believe in God as well as people who don’t, and that some of their leaders are in fact Christians. “Aha,” I thought, “they really are like Unitarian Universalists.”

And then the whole thing took a huge turn.

“We really don’t mention God, or Atheism, or anything like that. We make it as welcoming as possible for all people. We don’t talk about faith, because that ends up alienating people, but we also don’t talk about not believing in it,” said Sanderson Jones, the group’s co-founder.   Asked what they sing, the other co-founder, Pippa Evans, answered, “The songs that as you wake up in the morning, you’d be happily singing along to….”  And the examples they gave were utterly content free – the lyrics didn’t seem to matter.

That’s when it hit me that there is a significant difference between Unitarian Universalism and the Sunday Assemblies.  The movement they presented is based on a model of never challenging anyone. The guiding principal seems to be that no one who comes should ever be made to feel uncomfortable – and to me that just isn’t enough. Authentic community is sometimes uncomfortable, and people need to be able to deal with hard questions of meaning. We don’t have to believe in God – I don’t, at least not by conventional definitions – but we should be able to be challenged, from time to time, in our assumptions.

That seems to be the fundamental difference between the Sunday Assemblies and Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalists embrace diversity, talk about the many things we believe, sometimes challenging each others’ assumptions just by doing that, because we recognize that being with people who see things differently than we do helps us grow and deepen as human beings. In the Sunday Assemblies – at least based on the interview – diversity of viewpoints is something that might exist but isn’t talked about, assumptions go unchallenged, and everything is kept very, very safe.

Ironically, this is what Unitarian Universalists are often falsely accused of being.

I hope I’m wrong about this, because I would celebrate the emergence of a powerful, culturally relevant new Humanist movement. They certainly are doing good work in the world, and they are as yet very young.  But I need a community that will help me make meaning through the tough times of life, that will challenge me to think as well as feel, and that will help me grow as a person. That’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

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