Afraid of the Dark

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief
this new uncharted place
this reflection where there is no light.

Is this the loss of a parent?
the death of a child,
a suicide,
a life with AIDS?
Is it cancer?
No, and it could never compare.
Those moments are the anchors reminding us
that to do more than just survive
we must thrive.
This is new darkness for some…
and all too familiar shadow for many.
But for everyone in this moment
it is a windowless room,
stifling, close.

There is no way out.
Do not pin your hopes to a symbol.
If you have to broadcast to the world
“I am safe space”,
you are not.
Live the symbol.

There is no way out.
Do not think you can outsmart the system.
If you are working with the rules
to win “the game”,
you are the system.
Learn a new way to play.

There is no way out.
Do not ask which action you can take.
If you are questioning what to do
and looking for direction,
you are doing nothing.
and really “we must do everything…”

Hold on to this moment
this darkness, this grief.
It is a new uncharted place,
it is a reflection where there is no light.
You must hold on
because the goal is not to be outside
but instead to finally face your fears inside.
Learn how to love the beauty, the richness, the power
of what is nurtured in this dark.

-ALD

This poem is inspired by the relentlessly prophetic words and work of Rev. Elena Rose and the army of Trans* Activists teaching us all what it means to live truth.

Pray

I had the great opportunity to present this poem as part of the arts and culture initiative at the Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles this week.  What an amazing experience to be part of this gathering of people who are changing the world through policy and practice that promote equity!  This poem was the opening for a session titled Faith Leaders Delivering on the Promise of Equity.  My hope is that we are able to make a difference regardless of how we do or do not acknowledge the presence of faith in our lives.

http://www.policylink.org/

Pray

How will you pray for me?
Will you summon your God
Will you call on your symbols
Will you tell me your ritual
Is that all you can say?
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When you see me in chains
Will you judge
Will you jury
Will you sentence my stay
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When my head is covered and yours is bare
If my language is ancient
And yours barely there
If my day of rest
Is your hardest day of play
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
Will you see my skin
Will you feel my body
Will you know my mind
Will you understand my words
Or will you put them each
In a separate place
Or order or way…
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
If I don’t pray at all
If I am not called or calling
Deemed or damaged.
If I see myself not broken
But beautiful every day.
How will you pray?

And if you’ve never prayed
And if you don’t have the time
And if you see faith as sanctified crime
And too much of a price for your sense of self to pay
Can you still look in my eyes
Hold my joy or hear my cries.
Can you love me,
Love me,
Love me,
Love me just enough
In your own way
And pray?

The Only Fight

brown-cancer-ribbon

The symbol to the left is normally used to denote support for cancer awareness.  I’ve turned it upside down as a symbol of my commitment to end the cancer of racism.  Upside down, its shape is also a reminder that the United States never passed a law against lynching…one of the most explicit and brutal acts of institutional racism in the history of this nation (although the government “apologized” in 2005.)  One of my earliest memories is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  46 years later, black men are still being gunned down out of racially motivated hatred.  Where is my government?  Where is my church?  Where are my people?  

I offer the following plea to all people during what sometimes feels like a perpetual night of horror that has lasted my entire life.  If you agree, please share this image and these words:

WE believe in a truly United States…

We demand an immediate and more engaged national response to racism.  We insist on aggressive action from our leadership (government, faith, social, etc.) and we encourage hands on action and vocal responses to injustice that demonstrate the power and will of THE PEOPLE to dismantle institutionalized racism in America once and for all. 

Racism in the United States is a global embarrassment and demands our priority attention.  The question of race is part of every cultural, ethical and spiritual aspect of life in this country.  As a result, American racism is a sickness that lies at the root of economic inequity, environmental abuse, health disparity, immigration justice, gender, sexuality and gender identity marginalization, political and social disenfranchisement as well as countless other gross injustices, past and present.

We will no longer tolerate the specific issue of racism being sidelined.  THE PEOPLE have the power to turn American racism into history.  We demand change TODAY. 

– A.D.

Is This the Place?

San Diego Temple

San Diego California Temple

This morning, I began my day by reading a Huffington Post article about the “mass resignation” of at least 500 members from the LDS church (see the Facebook page here.)  I think this caught my eye because I was speaking with a dear friend just this weekend who grew up Mormon and enlightened me to the fact that the Mormon church is shrinking drastically; that like other denominations of organized religion in the United States, the LDS church is having trouble not only keeping members, but growing new ones as a result.  I was surprised by this personal report because there is a good deal of information out there (mostly generated by the Mormons) that says quite to the contrary (here is an interesting article on the disconnect between some of the reported numbers.)  But whether or not the LDS church is growing, doesn’t concern me as much as whether or not Unitarian Universalism has a place for them if they do leave their home church.

I love engaging people who come to the UU faith from other traditions.  In fact, these have been some of my richest interactions.  Frequently, the conversations are prompted by some statement that someone who self identifies themselves as a spiritual “refugee” has made when I invite them to tell me what brought them to a UU church or to explain or dive deeper into why they carry bitterness, or dismissal or outright hatred for their birth faith.  I have encountered Mormons in our circles as well, who are challenged not so much by negative feelings about the church they left or by UU free thinking, but more by what can sometimes feel like a lack of spiritual and theological discipline and rigor in UU spaces.  It is that ever reverberating question “what do you believe?”

My friend and fellow UU blogger, Andrew Hidas, this week posted about “The Difference Between Faith and Belief” which has me thinking about this question as well.  Not everyone who comes to UU churches from other faith traditions is coming damaged, or as a “refugee.”  Some (and I would even argue most) are coming because they believe in “both/and.”  They still believe in their faith tradition (or would like to), but they also want to be in authentic community with others who may not share that faith; they also come with genuine questions about faith in general.  This is my personal predicament.  I identify as a Christian.  In fact, I’m about to embark on a deeper exploration of my Christian faith, specifically as a part of my Unitarian Universalist journey and to deepen my understanding as to how to bridge the gap between Unitarian Universalists and historically Christian communities of color.  As a seminarian, I am often asked, why then don’t I just seek ordination from the UCC or Episcopal church?  My reply is twofold: a) I believe in a religiously pluralistic community and b) am I not welcome as a Christian?  Much like the children’s hand game, I often wonder if Unitarian Universalists are distracted by the monolithic organizations (the church and the steeple) before they are able to see the individual people inside of other churches.

The larger percentage of religious people that I encounter, regard their religion as a framework.  Whether taken literally or figuratively, the texts, practices, creeds, and even dogma etc. serve as a reference point that allows them to move through their everyday life with a feeling of security that gives them perspective on what is frequently a turbulent ride (here is a Gallup poll on the numbers of people who interpret the Bible literally as one example.)  Also, I don’t believe that most people consider themselves intellectuals.  They are not primarily concerned with the more esoteric and broad societal implications of a doctrine that speaks to a greater, less tangible good. They are concerned with putting food on the table.  More plainly put, most folks just want some help, either in the form of kindness or by being told that someone once suffered more than they did and it came out okay.  On a basic level, this is what organized religion does for many “believers.”  I look at some of the Mormons I’ve known over the years and I see this.  On the most basic of levels, they are a close community that believes in family and generosity and life with a purpose.  I am not for one minute ignoring or excusing the fact that the same church organization banned blacks until the 1970s, and created Proposition 8, but I have to believe that there is a middle ground between a belief structure that inspires one toward rich relationships with humanity and political mind control and abuse of power and privilege.  Religion cannot be all or nothing.

Unitarian Universalists have a unique calling.  As we have evolved (and specifically as a non-creedal faith where “all are welcome”) we must find a way to actually support people in their various beliefs and non-beliefs.  It would do us no good to say to the Hindu, “you are welcome in our church, but leave your belief in Dharma outside.”  Just as it would be equally problematic to say to a Mormon “come on in…but don’t bring Joseph Smith.”  If we are truly “multi religious” we can’t just paste up the symbols of multiple religions in the back of the pulpit and say “we’ve got it covered”…Clarence Skinner and the Universalists who founded the Community Church of Boston discovered the challenges with multi religious community first hand, and in fact, reflecting on our Universalist history in particular might be a good starting point to get us closer to fulfilling our modern calling.  Unitarian Universalists’ greatest and most challenging task is still ahead of us: reconciling the relationship between the “non believing” and the “believing.”  Creating a space that celebrates faith, belief and non belief while offering a connection to them all through our shared, common existence.  Only then, will we be able to call ourselves truly multi-religious and be able to give a genuine shout out to everyone, including the Mormons, in the house.

They Have a Way of Shutting That Whole Thing Down

I think a lot of us are reeling at the ineptitude of our Government right now.  Regardless of your party affiliation, it is a gross act of egotism to allow ones “agenda” to take precedent over ones actual job. Sojourners Magazine published a letter from faith leaders yesterday that speaks well to this issue.

This morning however, I was reminded that people have faced this kind of crisis before and faith leaders have written about it in an earlier time.  I read several tweets and comments last night on the Huffington Post that blamed “religion” for what’s going on right now; ironically, Psalm 37 was part of the Morning Office today.  Somehow, I think “religion” might have gotten this one right.  For goodness sakes, I’m a Unitarian Universalist and this Psalm even seems appropriate to me!  However you consider the Lord, God, the Spirit(s) or humanity in general, please read and take comfort…this too shall pass.

Psalm 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust

Of David.

1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,

2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.

6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.

8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.

9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.

11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;

13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that their day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;

15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked.

17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will abide forever;

19 they are not put to shame in evil times,
in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked perish,
and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
but the righteous are generous and keep giving;

22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 Our steps are made firm by the Lord,
when he delights in our way;

24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the Lord holds us by the hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.

26 They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing.

27 Depart from evil, and do good;
so you shall abide forever.

28 For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

29 The righteous shall inherit the land,
and live in it forever.

30 The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.

31 The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watch for the righteous,
and seek to kill them.

33 The Lord will not abandon them to their power,
or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,
and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.

36 Again I passed by, and they were no more;
though I sought them, they could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless, and behold the upright,
for there is posterity for the peaceable.

38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their refuge in the time of trouble.

40 The Lord helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

 

God or “whatever”

I have frequently heard liberal preachers speak of religious inclusion and at some point in their discourse, they offer up a list that goes something like this: “whether you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever.”

Whatever? I know many Christians who would take issue with anyone who called Jesus a “whatever.”  There is a great deal of privilege that goes with being able to reduce every faith expression from the vast expanse of unnamed, or personally unfamiliar in the Western religious experience down to a “whatever.”  It is the same impulse I believe that lets the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” actually have traction among the some of the religious “nones” (those who are unaffiliated despite acknowledging a spiritual force.) Now, as a writer, I fully understand the casual grammatical placement of the word “whatever” here, but I’m more concerned with the intention behind the use of the word and the telescoping in a list like this from familiar to foreign.  I believe it is worth asking ourselves if we really are committed to inclusion if we’re not willing to complete the list…or at least to try.

Monday night, I was in Pastoral Care class at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, listening to a great lecture and interaction with our esteemed professor from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Herbert Anderson.   Class was focused around how stories fit into our idea of pastoral care and what story telling, particularly the God story can mean in the pastoral context.  As a Unitarian Universalist who is in no way exclusively bound to the Bible, I was acutely aware of the Christian framing of this whole scenario: God, Jesus and the Bible applied in a deliberate way for healing, but regardless of my own spiritual framework, I still got a great deal out of the class.  I explained to a classmate afterward that I took this as just one mechanism for applying communication in a pastoral way.  I may or may not use Biblical scripture; it may or may not come when someone is in crisis.  No matter what, having the ability to help someone connect a shared human narrative to a lived experience can be a valuable tool.  But I was also reminded by another classmate that in some other traditions, this business of “pastoral care” is not something that one needs to learn or do as a separate skill.  In many ways (as it has been communicated to me by some of my Jewish colleagues) religion is the story; God is the lived experience; ‘pastoral care’ is entirely what it means to be a religious leader.

Whatever

My broader point may not be entirely clear yet.  This class was, by the professor’s admonition, Christian focused and framed.  But even in stripping away the Christianity, we must be mindful of where this understanding of a religious practice comes from because it may sit completely outside of the way and purpose of another faith tradition.  This is the ‘whatever.’  It would be so easy to say of pastoral care practices that they apply to all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, whatever…when in fact that is not the case.  But then our modern sense of ironic, tongue in cheek, media scripted humor says that we have an ‘out’ when we get to the end of our specific knowledge and our bulleted lists: Whatever. I say that if we reduce each other, even those we do not know about to ironic, witty or worse, snarky reactions and careless dismissive bucket phrases, we are as good as saying to them “you don’t matter and I don’t care.”  We face a similar dilemma in the LGBTQQI2S world; in an awkward attempt to create inclusion, we have created a trap for ourselves by attempting to reduce our beautiful tribe of gender fluid, sexuality affirming humans to a labeled container that will always be too small.  Coming back to religion, I’m well versed in the origins of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I’ve all too often heard liberal religious folks use it as a bucket to mean “all those other faiths that I don’t have time enough to find out about or are too ‘out there’ for me to wrap my head around but I think they should be mentioned somehow because I want to protect my liberal cred.”

So what is the solution?  First, we in the progressive/liberal traditions need to take our religion more seriously and not be afraid of asking those around us who may not believe our way, or may not believe in anything at all to give us the respect of acknowledging that we do take it seriously.  We’ve all heard the talk of “recovering Catholics,” “bitter ex-Baptists” and “former Mormons” and their situations and feelings are real; but so are our feelings about a life that is shaped and guided by our faith in positive ways.  Common respect.  Second, we need to be careful of making light of those who come from more conservative camps than we do.  Although I think teaching creationism in school is dangerous work, particularly if it is the only thing being taught, I do not think parodying it is the answer.   All parody serves to do is bully the ones we don’t agree with into submission.  We will get much further in coming up with real solutions to keeping schools out of the battle over religion by understanding and being able to actually communicate with those from whom we differ.  We don’t have to learn how to be Evangelical or Pentecostal, but we do have to learn how to live along side those whose beliefs differ from our own.

Finally, I would ask that we make a commitment.  A commitment to real inclusion where when we get to the end of the list we acknowledge that our experience is limited…or better yet, that we don’t speak in lists at all.  Rather, we speak always of the greater body of faith traditions and expressions and that we don’t single out our personal practice as somehow standing above or first in line.  Real inclusion means everyone is at the table and that miraculously, no one is served last.

I will take your faith seriously and not mock your faith in any way whether it be by exclusion, assumption or dismissiveness or invalidation.  My faith is not yours…even if we share the same practice and tradition…nor is your faith mine…our faiths are personal and our experience of community and spirituality are unique…as are each of our stories and each of our lives.  We all own the freedom to live our faith as we feel necessary.

I will take time and care to speak of all spiritual practices with sensitivity, awareness, intention, Grace…whatever.

Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.