Holy Trouble in the Wilderness

Posted in Uncategorized on November 17, 2015 by Rev. Mykal Slack

Wayside Center HouseI entered the peace of the mountains and the trees in Faber, VA this past Thursday with my Soulforce family, gratefully leaving behind Internet and cell phone service of any real value. I was also introduced to the Wayside Center for Popular Education, a space where organizers, community healers and holy troublemakers of all kinds have gathered for several years to do the work of love and justice. This was our second retreat as Movement Fellows for the Southeast House. of Soulforce.

So much happened. We talked about the real truths behind respectability politics; the significance of nonviolent resistance; where we hold our most tangible desires, as well as our deepest pain; what it means for our bl
ack and brown/queer and Trans bodies to show up fully in spaces whereWC Hammock folks would just as soon see us dead as take out the trash. We talked about the Ride! We ate, sang, hung out on hammocks, played with clay, told dirty Bible stories (oh, they’re in there), baked apple pie as an exercise in strategic planning, read The Color Purple as sacred text (because it truly is), revealed our hearts and stretched our minds. To be in their midst was healing, joyful,
awe-inspiring and real. I learned as much about myself in those three days as I have in three years.

And coming back into the madness of terrorism and death, fear (real and misguided), and racism and white supremacy masquerading as safety and security was almost too much to take. Since my return on Sunday evening, I have been inundated with every ounce of sadness and stupidity the Internet could cough up. In the last 24 hours, feeling my heart beat has been like listening to my soul cry. And let’s not even talk about the fact that this is the week of the observance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I was loved on so hard over the weekend that I almost forgot about how isolating being in this world can be.

My heart goes out to every person who has lost loved ones or fears death at the hands of extremist groups like ISIS.

If what the reports are saying is true, a heartfelt thanks to the governors of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington for not asking to block the White House from sending Syrian refugees their way.

If you’ve got nothing but Islamophobia to spew, I don’t have time for it. Go do your homework and come back when you have a willing and open heart and some perspective.

To those who experience terrorism of all kinds right here in the U.S. in the forms of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia and the like, let’s continue to call some people out, as well as call some people in, do our part to change this thing up, and find and connect with one another. None of us can, nor should we ever have to, make this journey to transform our world alone or in isolation. I may not always know what to do. But if this past weekend reminded me of anything, it’s that whatever I do, whoever I endeavor to become, in this upside down world we’re living in, I need my people to help me see my way through.

Maybe you’re one of them, too…

Soulforce Altar

I Remember…

Posted in Uncategorized on October 15, 2015 by Rev. Mykal Slack
This has been an exceptionally busy time – settling into our new home and new city, meeting wonderful new people, getting to know a new church community and learning how best to serve them, still wearing a few too many hats, and making important decisions that impact my family. It’s a lot to take in, but once I sat down to breathe today, flashes of intense and beautiful memories emerged. It’s National Coming Out Day. And while my feelings about this day are complicated, I remember fondly the day I bought my Keith Haring “National Coming Out Day” Poster (my profile pic) and literally skipped back to the dorm to put it up on my wall. It was probably around 1993; I shed a few happy tears when I did it. Made me feel powerful, somehow…
I remember driving into town with my sisters and telling them I was gay before telling anyone else…because they were (and still are) amazing people. “Cool! Do you have a girlfriend??” I still smile about that.
I remember my parents sitting me down and asking me if I was gay… Even though I knew the impact telling them the truth would have on all of us, I couldn’t deny it. Within six months, I had found my first apartment and had my first roommate, Leverenz Carmen :-)
I remember the deep complexities of being surrounded and supported by exceptional womyn/dykes/lesbians/queers who also weren’t Black or Brown people and wondering where my folks were. I also remember swallowing a lot of racism that I wouldn’t dare deal with. This was the only community I had. It took years for me to fully understand the impact of these complexities on my life and work.
I remember Barbara Katz talking to me about being a lesbian lawyer and showing me the ropes.
I remember walking around in the Village for the first time and sitting in the park across the street from the Stonewall Bar. The statues of the lesbian and gay couples undid me. I stared at them for a looooong time. I started breathing deeply for the first time in New York City; it was 1996. I was 22 years old.
I remember the day I decided to go to law school to work on behalf of LGBTQ youth and families. And thanks to folks like Mary Lu Bilek, Luis DeGraffe (may he rest in peace), Franklin Siegel and Rhonda Copelon (may she rest in peace), I actually got to do what I set out to do. I am indebted to Peter Ciccino (may he rest in peace), Jennifer Middleton, and Michael Adams for being my anchors during my early lawyering days and to Kylar Broadus and Shannon Minter for showing me who I could become.
I remember Lavender Light Gospel Choir in New York City and feeling like I’d finally found a place to call home – “The Black and People of All Colors Lesbian & Gay Gospel Choir”. Gregg Payne and THOSE HEELS!!! The Kente cloth & lavender stoles. My spirit; God’s love. Community singing through all of the stuff that brought great joy or immense sorrow. Maria-Elena, Jeremiah (may he rest in peace), Michael, Andy, Theresa, Kathleen, Alexis, Ray and all the folks who brought me life. The first person I ever knew who died of AIDS – I can never remember his name because we weren’t that close. But I remember his face and his long locks and think about him often. Richard: Remind me of his name. Was it Kevin?
I remember my first experience of communion at Metropolitan Community Church of New York. Reflecting on MLK. Singing about justice. The preaching! The tears. The deep connection I felt without even knowing why or how. So many queer people of faith in one room! And the person who held me up ALWAYS was Enjay Sharp! She’s still doing it, too ;-)
I remember being a staff counselor at Sylvia’s Place, a shelter for queer and trans youth on the first floor of that church. I learned something new about myself and the world every time one of those kids came through the doors. And I met this kid named Kaiden who I’ve been laughing and/or crying with ever since. I was around 30 years old by then.
I remember Union Theological Seminary. So much happened in seminary that was beautiful and hard. Perhaps the most beautiful thing, though, was the day I shared with the entire community of faculty, students and staff my Trans journey in the context of resurrection soon after Easter. It was 10 years ago this year. I was able to talk about the man I was called to be and become, what transition would mean for me and for them, and I received more love than I knew what to do with. I was probably too stunned to say thank you in all the ways I could have. And I remember all the notes of support and love, the cards and flowers, the advice. Isaac, Dominique, Paul, Kymberley, Justin, and countless others…thank you. I’m not sure where I’d be to this day had you not done what you did or said what you said.
I remember taking a deep breath as I prepared to stand up on the chancel of Vision of Hope Metropolitan Community Church to take an oath to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with my God. Most of the people I look up to most in ministry were there, and I was overcome with joy and awe to realize that they were all either Queer or Trans-identified, or were staunch supporters and allies of our Queer and Trans lives. Brendan, Darlene and so many others – you bless me.
I remember being amazed by the inside and outside beauty of someone just as queer as me and wondering how long it would take for our hearts to come together. I will forever be grateful that an LGBTQ scholarship fund (The Point Foundation) paved the way for what has been my greatest joy in this life. You still amaze me, LeLaina Romero ;-)
I remember my dad hugging me tight, crying, telling me that he loved his son. HIS SON!!! And I remember watching him take his last breath less than two months later. Grateful for who we’d become to each other in the two or three years before his death and devastated by how much time we didn’t get.
I remember the day my mom shared that she and my dad had named me “Michael” before I was born, convinced that I was going to be a boy. She told me this many years after I’d begun my transition and changed my name to Mykal. I was stunned. And after I was able to pick my mouth up off the floor, all I could manage to say was,”Well, I guess you knew more than you realized.” She agreed. I will forever marvel over the wonder of this…
I remember the day I realized that I just wasn’t going to hide any part of myself anymore, that I didn’t have to. That I am love/loved beyond measure all day, all the time. That being a Black, Queer, Trans-identified clergy person of faith is ALL the fabulous realness. That I can love, play, be bold and brilliant, live out my calling and be a force for justice-making and community-building and healing in the world…without fear.
And when we can all poke our heads out from the shadows without fear, share the truths of our hearts, minds and souls, and remain on solid ground, then, and only then, will our work be done.
Amen. Ashe. And blessed be.

Come As You Are, Part III: The Size of Your Soul

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2015 by Rev. Mykal Slack

This is Part III of the sermon series on transformation and Beloved Community. It seems particularly fitting, having just seen Selma Thursday night. I’ll be reflecting more on that soon.

In With Purpose and Principle: Essays about the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Owen-Towle, the minister emerita at First UU Church of San Diego, wrote about our third principle, which is the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. This is what she said:

Ours is a hopeful faith. It holds out the promise that we can become as full, rich contributors to life as our imaginations and our efforts can take us. We have to work at it, however. [This seems like a recurring theme, doesn’t it?!] Spiritual development takes effort. Every time we come from a personal rather than an intellectual place, we express ourselves spiritually. …If acceptance affirms us as we are, encouragement pushes us toward whom we might become. As crucial as acceptance is to our spiritual and emotional health, we need frequent nudges by others to grow lest we stagnate.[i]

Nudges… If this series of sermons that we have shared the last two times we’ve been together and this morning have been anything at all, I would probably argue that they have offered some gentle and, yet, not-so-subtle…nudges. I’m a fan…of nudges. As I shared last week, much to the shock of all those gathered, I am not at all averse to being contrary in church, so it makes sense that I kind of like the notion of nudging and being nudged.

Owen-Towle is talking about the commitment we make in this covenantal faith to support and encourage one another. And I believe, at the heart of that acceptance and encouragement, is a willingness to be nudged just enough to meet people where they are and not expect them to meet us where we want them to be. That’s how we grow, right? That’s how we get to see and understand that which is beyond ourselves…and sometimes even beyond our comfort zones. We help create spaces in which we can call upon and cultivate one another’s voices and share our stories. And the more we do that, the better equipped we become to step into the risk and trust involved in talking about what’s real for us.

And whether you realized it or not, THIS is precisely what many of you did last week! For those of you who may not have been with us, we talked about the 4th principle, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and used that as a foundation to take a closer look at our mission here at First Parish to become a multi-racial, multicultural, multi-faith justice-making community. Part of the invitation was for folks to jot down some things that come to mind when thinking about this mission and opportunity for transformation as a community. It was certainly possible that you could have looked at me and said, “Not today, Mykal.” But you didn’t! You placed in a basket on the chancel 70+ index cards loaded with incredible wisdom and insight, knowing at the very least, that one person would read them. It was incredibly brave and probably generated some anxiety in the room. Am I right? But you did it anyway. And I want to take this opportunity to thank you for sharing everything that you wrote because it opened my eyes and heart, is helping me grow and, hopefully, will provide some foundation in the future for how to engage more deeply an understanding of our mission and where we all fit in the vision for the future that it provides.

Not surprisingly, there were many perspectives on transformation – not just one or two, but many. Without sharing everything that I read (the hope is that we’ll have more opportunities to connect around these issues in deeper ways), it seemed clear to me that there were four primary themes: 1) well-articulated notions of what transformation is and what it requires of each of us as community members; 2) an understanding of transformation and a deep desire to see that vision through, but an uncertainty about how to do that; 3) very real fears and anxieties about what may follow from our charge to live and to build the Beloved Community; and 4) concerns that transformation is not only not likely, but that we’re not equipped to actually do it well. Really serious and beautiful stuff!!

Folks expressed desires to be seen and to learn good ally and anti-racist work, as well as to understand our weaknesses and blind spots in radical welcome and addressing them together, without creating an “us and them” framework or congratulating ourselves too much for what we’ve already done. Folks became really honest about not knowing, in the context of transformation, how to share the truth and realities of their class and race privilege in a respectful and compassionate way, or how to focus on personal transformation while, at the same time, being accepting of so much. We especially find fear in the fuzziness of what transformation means and how it may impact what’s familiar. One person, as a way to help ease some of that tension and fear wrote: “Transformation isn’t just changes; it takes time and is evolutionary. And perhaps it will help all of us along the way to remember that it takes time.”

Deeply personal, honest and engaging work, you all did, because we all desire to be seen and heard in these efforts. In everything that you wrote, it was as if you were asking: Just how F.A.R. can we go? Someone offered these words on one of our index cards: “Fear. Acceptance. Renewal. These are the stages that I experience. The fear is born from a desire for acceptance. Renewal is born from the fruits of acceptance. Community, whether large like this congregation, or small like a couple, brings this uniquely human benefit of belonging.” In other words, going F.A.R. offers the uniquely human benefit of creating a space of belonging, but in order to reach that place of belonging in its fullness, it is good to be willing to move through the Fear, Acceptance and Renewal that makes those spaces possible. (And I swear I want to use this everywhere I go now, so if the person who wrote this wants to tell me who they are, let’s talk about that.)

You see, the possibilities for growth in our community of faith is endless. This is true, not in spite of who we are and all we bring, but because of it…ALL OF IT! The key to moving through that fear and into acceptance and renewal begins with expressing ourselves from that personal place, which is where spirit resides, and speaking into community what lays claim to your heart and mind. And when we do that, we open up the possibility for abiding relationships with each other and with the Holy because what will become most familiar are the connections and contradictions that make us who we are called to be as a community. (This was what Nona Hendryx was getting at in her song Transformation that we all heard during the offering today.) And the more invested in those connections and contradictions we become, the more our hearts and minds and souls can expand and we can embrace all the complexities that being in relationship will bring. Notice I didn’t say CAN bring; I said “WILL” bring!

Unitarian theologian, Bernard Loomer, wrote and spoke about this expanding when he would ask folks at his home church in Berkeley, CA, “What is the size of your soul?” He’d say:

By S-I-Z-E, I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of their love, their capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature.[ii]

Rev. Dr. Robert Hardies, the senior minister at All Souls DC who wrote our call to worship this morning, called Loomer’s assessment “Spirituality in 3-D”!!![iii] We hope for souls that can take in the world in all its complexity and diversity, yet maintain a sense of integrity. We hope for souls that can love and be in relationship in the midst of all that complexity. What we need is a spiritual posture of embrace.

And let me be clear about something. It is a false dilemma to ask whether we should focus our lives on spiritual growth or social justice. They are not mutually exclusive! Hardies posits, and I agree, that when we frame the conversation in this way we undermine both our spiritual health and our work for justice, and we miss the meaning of a world-affirming spirituality. If anyone knew and believed this, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, we say that we strive to live and build the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dream. It is at the heart of our mission and the transformation we seek to live into in deeper ways. “The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. King, also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world. As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.[iv]

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of kinship. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict. For King, Beloved Community offered a vision of total relatedness – Whereas desegregation can be brought about by laws, integration requires a change in attitudes. It involved personal and social relationships that are created by love — and these cannot be legislated. That’s what he hoped for, lived and died for, and it’s what we strive for here in this place.

How do we do it? One breath at a time. One awkward and uneasy moment at a time. One thought, perhaps created by fear, but carried through by hope, at a time. When I can fully see you and you can fully see me, marvelous…even miraculous things can happen. No, they will happen. And we will all be better people for it. I believe in us. I believe in the vision. So my hope for this community is that we can continue to meet each other where we are, have the hard conversations, share what’s in our heats about the vision and make this a place of radical welcome for all people.

Amen. Ashe. Blessed Be.

[i]  With Purpose and Principle: Essays on the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. Edward A. Frost, Ed. UUA: Boston, MA 1998, p. 41-42.

[ii] The Seven Principles in Word and Worship. Ellen Brandenburg, Ed. Skinner House Books: Boston, MA 2007, p. 41-42.

[iii] Ibid at 42.

[iv]  http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4

Come As You Are, Part II: Seeing the Forest

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2015 by Rev. Mykal Slack

Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as a worship leader at First Parish Cambridge while the Senior Minister was on sabbatical. Over the summer, I preached a three-part sermon series about the implications of transforming that community into a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making congregation. I pulled them out recently and thought I should post them here. This is Part II of that series.

In reflecting on the deep pain and interconnection that happened in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, Sarah Lammert, Director of UUA Ministries and Faith Development, offered words that are meaningful for us today:

For we belong to one another, irrevocably. We belong to the ones so broken by fear and alienation that they strike out without conscience. We belong to the ones in harm’s way and to those who love them. We belong to the bystanders, the first responders, the runners, and the meditators. We belong to the angry, the compassionate, the confused and those who don’t seem to notice much of anything. We belong to the young and old, the able and challenged, the immigrant and the aboriginal. We belong to the breezy sunny day, the rocks and rivers, the moving earth, and the squirrels in the trees. We belong to the smokestacks and the trash and the scarred remains of explosions. We belong to a Love greater than fear and to a Power beyond the sum of our parts. We are not ourselves alone.[i]

The times that you and I have been here together on Sunday mornings have been rich, haven’t they? I have stood up here and laid some things down on you that you have laughed about, cried about, felt deeply about, thought more and more about as time passed, asked me about later or forgotten altogether. I’ve heard claps, um-hmm’s, some shouts, snaps…even a few groans. I’d even be willing to bet that folks have left feeling anger or confusion, while others have left overjoyed and really clear about what they were going to do with what they learned. That’s alright. It’s good. Do you know why it’s good? Tell me… [Gave some folks a chance to speak.]

It’s good for many reasons, but there are two I want to focus on today. First, this (what we’re doing right now) is a conversation. This moment doesn’t happen just because I’m here as the preacher for the day. It happens because we all show up and make this moment what it is. Second, when there’s an exchange, something changes in us and in the room. That’s the hope, anyway. Our hearts might beat a little faster, or our brains might perk up with activity, and what we hope for ourselves and one another may shift. When you respond to me (either in the context of Sunday morning worship or at times in-between), it informs how I respond to you and informs what matters to me. Does that make sense?

This is why last week’s message seemed so meaningful to so many of us.  In looking at our fifth principle, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society, we talked about the problems inherent in holding up any longstanding principle without an ongoing assessment of how effective it continues to be as times and people change. So as we reimagine what the exchange, the engagement with one another can look like, we begin to call upon and cultivate one another’s voices in more effective ways. One way is to simply share our stories…in community! And we’re going to do some of that this morning.

And so this week, we take a closer look at and put into practice a bit our fourth principle – a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. What the heck does THAT look like? The trick is not to only focus on any one aspect of it, but to see it as a whole statement. Paige Getty puts it this way:

If we are to actively affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we must be deliberate and diligent in our living. As persons of faith, we accept responsibility for our own actions. We are honest about our assumptions and biases and are, at times, open to the truth and meaning that life holds out for us. In response, we are willing to act on that truth and meaning – to evolve in word and deed and to live that conviction to change when change is necessary.[ii]

As we call upon and cultivate our voices, however they show up, we begin to recognize what lays claim to our hearts and our lives. What matters to us? Are we able to be and bring our most authentic selves into this space? Do we ever feel held back here in any way? If we were to ask and answer these kinds of questions, we’d find out pretty quickly who we are in community. And in so doing, we also learn how better to preserve what is unique about each of us EVEN AS we enter into the space of committed relationship with one another. So if I asked: What brings you the most joy in this place and what do you struggle with the most in this place, what would you say? Perhaps a more relevant question is: do you trust that you could speak those truths aloud in community, hoping that they’ll be held with care? And if not, why not?

[Invite one person to offer a joy, one person to offer a struggle, one person to tell me why they do or don’t trust they can speak their truth and one visitor/newcomer (brave soul) to say what they need to see in a community of faith in order to sense that trust]

Frederick Streng, who among other things had been the president of the International Society for Buddhist and Christian Studies, said that being in dialogue requires risk and trust – risk in the possibility of arousing anger and hostility in the expression of strongly held conflicting views, but also an even greater risk in the surprise of receiving new insights that offer new horizons or require changing our own perspective. The point is that you cannot fully foresee what will happen. At the same time, risk must be matched by trust. To expose yourself to the analysis and challenge of another person requires trusting that the other person is also caring, is secure enough in their view to allow for differences, and is open to learning new dimensions of their orientation that may be evoked in the exchange.

This is hard work, not just because sharing what’s real is hard for many of us in many contexts, but also because our non-creedal way of being religious in Unitarian Universalism tends to champion a kind of individualism that can keep us from seeing the forest from our own trees.[iii] It’s hard sometimes to live into a broader vision that extends beyond ourselves when the focus is on what I care about, what I do or don’t believe and what I want. And we often express this independence as a “freedom from” something stale and stagnant, rather than understand it as a “freedom to” step into something enriching and exciting. But when we bring a particular kind of energy and spirit into the room, as well as remain mindful of our covenant of right relations, we can begin to move toward more intimate relationships. We can be more vulnerable with each other and express things not so easily defined in precise ways.[iv] And we can fully engage the spiritual practice of growing our souls through relationship.

In the spirit of growing our souls through relationship, I have had the pleasure of talking with a few folks, albeit sometimes hesitantly, about this community’s mission to become a multi-racial, multicultural, multi-faith, justice-making community, about transformation. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we don’t talk about it much in the space of the wider community that is First Parish Cambridge. And I wonder why that is. Has anyone thought about why that is? [Pause for response]  Talk about a reason to call upon and cultivate one another’s voices and visions for shared ministry! Talk about the risk and trust required to hold those conversations and to hold those spaces – because transformation, building Beloved Community, is not about what other people do or how engaged other people can become. Transformation is an invitation to see ourselves in a new way; it’s an invitation for us to do things differently.

So let’s share a little bit about this. I’m going to invite you to take out the index card that’s been inserted into your bulletins and take a pencil that should be in your pews. If you don’t have one, we’ll make sure you get one. In these last few minutes, I want to ask you to jot down what comes to mind for you when you think about transformation and beloved community in this place. What excites you about our mission? What scares you, if anything? What keeps you from talking about it more and engaging the work more deeply? Do you not know whose work it is? Jot down just a few things and place the cards in the basket you’ll find on the chancel. When those 3 or 4 minutes are up, I will sound the singing bowl and offer a final word.

[Take time for reflection and writing.]

 It is a great blessing to be free (in our hearts, minds, bodies), to have the opportunity to live life as fully as one can, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond dogma and oppression and to wrestle freely with who we are and who we are to become. It is an amazing privilege. This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble and open to the great mysteries that lie ahead. It will be an honor for me to read your cards and allow your voices to set the tone for the final installment of this sermon series. And, while I can’t say exactly what it will look like, it is my hope is that we can use what you’ve shared this morning to help further our vision for transformation.

May this moment – our collective thoughts, hopes and dreams for this community and this church – be an opening and a continuation in our efforts to build the world we dream about, not just outside those doors, but right here in this place.

Amen. Ashe. Blessed Be.

[i] Carley, Burton D. and Laurel Hallman, eds. Not Ourselves Alone: Theological Essays on Relationship. Skinner House Books: Boston, MA 2014, p. 4

[ii] The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Ellen Brandenburg, Ed. Skinner House Books: Boston, MA 2007, p. 58.

[iii] Carley at VII.

[iv] Ibid.

Come As You Are, Part I: At Arms’ Length

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , on January 25, 2015 by Rev. Mykal Slack

Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as a worship leader at First Parish Cambridge while the Senior Minister was on sabbatical. Over the summer, I preached a three-part sermon series about the implications of transforming that community into a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making congregation. I pulled them out recently and thought I should post them here. This is Part I of that series.

As someone who began my foray into church life much later than many of my ministerial colleagues and most of the people I spend time with in church, I can come across as a bit of an oddball. Much to the dismay of some, I often carry with me a desire to question everything that goes on within the context of church – not so much because I enjoy being contrary (well…I actually do kind of enjoy being a little bit contrary), but because I think it matters a great deal not to get too comfortable at any given point about any given thing. It is, indeed, a spiritual practice to intentionally travel the sometimes difficult road of change. Perhaps more important than that desire to question is the fact that my fairly wide circle of church-going friends tend to be the types who would encourage such questioning. They tend to see it as good to know how things are and even better to challenge ourselves to reconsider how things can be. I like to think of these folks as the church rebels and revolutionaries in my life. For those of you who count yourselves among them, you probably know who you are. Thanks!

So it should come as no surprise to you that, as I step more fully into Unitarian Universalism, I wonder about some things. I have taken it upon myself to become more acquainted with the seven principles – not just take them at face value, but really invest in understanding them. It’s important, even necessary, to take this on, both because I need to know where I am and because I hear from many of you about where you’d like to see this and other UU communities go. It also matters to me that we each have a voice that we know we can use for the common good, not just outside of this place when we stand up for what is right out in the world, but also in this place when we endeavor to stand up for ourselves and each other. So I decided to start with our fifth principle: the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I’ll be honest with you. I thought it a little bit strange that a religious body would include a commitment to a political ideology in its defining principles. How can we hold in such high regard the notion that we each enter this place from so many different perspectives while, at the same time, holding fast to a particular way of giving voice to our hopes and desires as communities? How is that possible and how could it work? But then I was reminded that UUism is based on “two religions born in the…formative years of the American Republic, each decisively influenced and shaped by the same ideas and values that gave rise to the American Revolution and American democracy.”[i] Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a Universalist. Joseph Priestley, the scientist and preacher who helped found Unitarian churches throughout Britain and the U.S., greatly influenced people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, all of whom also espoused similar beliefs.

These men’s religious convictions were at the heart of their formulation of America’s political creed. For example, the political notion that a people have the right to self-government grows out of a religious conviction that human beings have the capacity to shape their own destiny. It’s an expression of faith in the power of human beings to shape their own lives.[ii] Unique characteristics and basic tenets of a democracy are that its citizens get to vote, figuratively and literally, and that each citizen is able to live the life of their choosing. At the heart of Unitarian Universalism’s fifth principle is the notion that we bring to life our inner sense of what is good and right by engaging the democratic process in our congregations.

As we delve more deeply into the hopes of our association of congregations, as well as into realities of our congregation’s mission and vision, it becomes important to think critically, though, about how this longstanding and deeply held process has both helped and hindered the building up of the world we dream about. We must remember, after all, that these deeply held principles were not meant for all of us. They were not meant for the female-identified people in this room, or for the male-identified people in the room who don’t own property. And they certainly weren’t meant for people who look like me.

What does our right of conscience and the use of the democratic process offer us? John Dewey, a philosopher, psychologist, and a major voice of progressive educational reform in the early part of the 20th century, believed that democracy was most powerfully exemplified in society not just by extending the right to vote, but by prioritizing communication that is effective enough to ensure a fully formed public opinion. In other words, every citizen, expert or not, and politician, progressive or not, would have a voice, and each of those voices together would serve as the foundation for who a community is. Rev. Paul H. Beattie, perhaps the most tireless advocate of the fifth principle, articulated a vision for the church that would encourage this widest possibility of diversity and pluralism. He said:

I want my Unitarian Universalist church to include Christians, Theists, Humanists, and others. I want its political discussions to include, Republicans, Democrats, Consumerists, and Libertarians. I want its discussions of economics to include Milton Friedmanites, John Kenneth Galbraithians, Marxists, socialists and capitalists, or free enterprisers. Such inclusiveness, which grows out of a radical congregational polity, and the non-creedal approach to religion, is the only possible basis for modern Unitarian Universalism.[iii]

If we stop and think about what Beattie is proposing in its broadest sense, it’s kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? He underscores a necessary aspect of this principle, which is that every person has a voice in community. EVERY PERSON, no matter their experience or faith journey!! And not only that, but that each person should be able to trust that their voice can and will be called upon and cultivated, not because it’s the right voice, but because there will always be room for each voice to be heard. Rev. Parisa Parsa puts it this way:

It’s the turning of one’s heart toward rather than away from connection to others, the opening and the willingness to be vulnerable, that come of the deepening life of faith. Religiously, our commitment to the democratic process asks us to bring our piece of revelation, our knowledge of grace, into relationship with others in the place where God dwells in them. And it invites us to live communally from that kind of openness.[iv]

Where and when can our democratic process hold us back? The beauty of Unitarian Universalism is that we hold as authoritative the internal voice of conscience that speaks in each and every human soul. And as we grow in knowledge and experience, we come to new understandings about how to be together; our religious lives become works in progress. The process itself can and should, therefore, be a work in progress, as well!

System break down happens when we as a people make movements forward, but how we make meaning of those movements remains stagnant and stale. When we hold up any longstanding principle without an ongoing assessment of how effective it continues to be as times and people change, that principle or process becomes itself a kind of creed. And when we have more faith in the process than in each other, we can lose sight of our covenantal relationship with one another. And if we don’t ask the hard questions about whether or not there is another way to come together and stick together, we may not even realize who we’ve left out or left behind. And for those who have gone, we may never fully understand the extent to which we’ve welcomed and engaged them merely at arms’ length.

I’m reminded of the dancer I encountered in church one Sunday morning at a church I frequented in the early days of my church life. We’d had powerful worship that day, and the music had us all on fire! At the end of worship, during the closing song, a young man, who I knew had AIDS and had been quite sick earlier that year, suddenly got up from his seat and started dancing. He’d been a ballet dancer before he got sick and, according to congregants who knew him well, had not danced in years. But that day, he danced! Up and down the aisle, he moved, with his arms outstretched, even managing to do a pirouette or two in the process! It was clear that the Spirit had moved in him and he needed to do something about it! It remains one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen happen spontaneously in church.

Not too long after he got up, though, the pastor of that church quietly walked up to him, tapped him lightly on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. A rush of sadness came over his face, and he quietly sad down. I found out later that he’d been asked to sit down…because that was not the right time to dance. The worship leaders of the church had never incorporated dance into the liturgy, so it just wasn’t done. It didn’t matter that this was probably the first time he’d danced like that in at least a year. It didn’t matter that the dance came directly out of being so moved by the service that all he could do was dance. It didn’t matter that he’d lost his voice in so many ways as a person living with AIDS and that his dance was his voice being heard. It had never been done, so it wasn’t allowed.

The UUA ‘s Commission on Appraisal, who’s mission it is to provoke deep reflection and to evoke timely, creative transformation of Unitarian Universalism, our congregations and the UUA, spent a number of years engaging hundreds of UUs on the question of our theological diversity, its foundation and how we articulate it (or don’t). In trying to understand whether or not there is a theological perspective that can ground all of us, numerous participants in focus groups that had been formed to aid them in their research expressed a sense of marginalization within the UUA. Not marginalized by folks from a particular theological perspective, but by the majority of eclecticism of belief that we espouse as critical to our faith. Essentially, the Commission found that folks who tended toward a particular understanding of themselves in relation to other people, the earth and to spirit felt voiceless. They felt voiceless because topics with the potential to create conflict were often avoided in congregations, as the Commission noted, “in the name of harmony but ultimately to the detriment of religious depth.”[v] Their positions weren’t going to be taken seriously, in either form or substance, so they chose not to speak up at all.

This notion that we have to make room is no small task, folks, especially in the context of this or any community of faith. But it is possible. Historian, author and civil rights activist, Vincent Harding once said, “I think that that determination to find a truly democratic society and to create the truly Beloved Community are things that can be available to us if we’re willing to work with each other and to work with the universe on developing them. They don’t come free and easy. They are tough, tough tasks for us to take on.” And despite the fact that Harding believed that “we are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many different peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences,” he also seemed clear that, to know how, after all the pain that we have caused each other, “to carry on democratic conversations that invite us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions, to figure out how to put these things together to create a more perfect union, is what helps us see the best possibilities in each other and make lasting change.”[vi]

But how do we even begin to take stock of what’s brilliant and beautiful about our fifth principle and what’s potentially damaging and dangerous? We have to do what the heretics, truth-seekers and revolutionaries have done since their Unitarian and Universalist beginnings. We have to continue to find ways to honor our stories, individual and collective. It’s in our stories. Story is a source of nurture that we cannot live without. We cannot become true, human beings for ourselves and for each other without story. To find ways to tell it, to share it, to create it, to encourage it allows a deep opening to take place. Stories bring together what I know, how I know, why I know and why it matters that you know what I know. What I believe, how I believe, why I believe and why it matters that you understand the essence of that belief. And when we make room for our stories, it matters much less what process we employ because how you show up and how I show up is made manifest in how we engage in shared ministry with one another.

Harding was the one who drafted Martin King, Jr.’s historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence”. In that speech, King quoted Arnold Toynbee, who said that our “first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”[vii]

May we continue to grow in our awareness of what the voice of love sounds like and remain ever mindful of the platform through which love can be heard, not just when we leave, but especially as we enter.

Amen. Ashe. Blessed Be.

[i] With Purpose and Principle: Essays on the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. Edward A. Frost, Ed. UUA: Boston, MA 1998, p. 63.

[ii] Ibid at 64.

[iii] Ibid at 67.

[iv] The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Ellen Brandenburg, Ed. Skinner House Books: Boston, MA 2007, p. 79-80.

[v] Engaging Our Theological Diversity: A Report by the Commission on Appraisal, Unitarian Universalist Association, May 2005, p. 33

[vi] “Vincent Harding, In Memoriam – Civility, History and Hope,” NPR’s On Being. http://www.onbeing.org/program/civility-history-and-hope/79

[vii] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

Reflections on Juneteenth and Pride

Posted in Sermons on July 1, 2014 by Rev. Mykal Slack

It’s been so long since I’ve posted, and there’s so much to write about these days! So I’ll start by posting this sermon I gave at First Parish in Cambridge on June 15th, LGBT Pride Sunday here in Boston.


There’s a phrase that I hear a lot these days. “Look at how far we’ve come!”

*Look at how far we’ve come! There was a time when I wouldn’t have dared tell anyone in school that I was queer, and now, there are over 4,000 Gay/Straight Alliances that we know of supporting the needs of LGBT students in high schools and colleges all over the country.

*Look at how far we’ve come! We used to look to Supreme Court cases like Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 to tell the story of what the legal system thought of us and our lives. It read:

The right to privacy protects intimate aspects of marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships and child rearing from state interference, and…no connection between family and marriage on the one hand and homosexual activity on the other can be demonstrated.

And now, local and state governments all over the country, are heeding the words of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. U.S., which reads:

Sup Ct Pic





*Look at how far we’ve come! There was a time when our society was so stuck on only recognizing two genders that, many of us would never have thought to disclose our transgender or gender non-conforming identity in ANY public forum. But now, we have folks like Laverne Cox, the first African American Trans woman to produce and star in her own TV show, getting the front cover of Time Magazine. Phyllis Frye was sworn in as the first openly transgender-identified judge in the nation. Diego Sanchez was the first Trans man to hold a senior congressional staff position on Capitol Hill. And next weekend, Boston University’s Episcopal Chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, will be the first openly transgender priest to preach at the historic Washington National Cathedral.

Look at how far we’ve come!! The month of June is this marvelous time where the tireless efforts of people of every gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity all across the land and our excitement about being able to step fully into the beauty of our truth meet. When I joined Metropolitan Community Church, I was happy to learn that Pride Sunday is a High Holy Day in that church. We dust off all of our special clergy garments, our leather and rainbow stoles and bear witness in the streets to the fact that we are loved, we are free and we are called! It can and should be a time of colorful celebration for all of us. It took me some time to recognize that it should also be a time of intense reflection about who we are and where we’re going.

I didn’t understand why my parents didn’t see my coming out as a cause for celebration. I recognized joy in my life for the first time and felt like things were possible that I never thought possible before. So, why not celebrate, right? I assumed it had everything to do with the fact that they were living lives completely different from the one I was interested in living. I wanted queerness EVERYWHERE à bright lights and big city à lots of places to go, people to see and things to do. So…you know, I moved to New York City J I didn’t have a care in the world! I’d fulfilled my two missions in life – gotten out of the South and started doing work that I loved.

While I was living it up, my parents were keenly aware, especially my dad, of something I hadn’t thought much about. While I had some victories to celebrate, there were still plenty of people who weren’t even close to celebrating. Now, I’m not naïve; I know my folks didn’t see my coming out as a victory. But one of the things that kept showing up in my dad’s critique of the world we live in was that we humans can get so settled in our own comfort that we can forget about the deep need of others. He talked about and became frustrated by this all the time, and it’s one of the things I learned from him. If we all can’t celebrate, then our work is not done. Unless we’re all free, then none of us are free.

But it’s a pattern we’ve seen in our various movements forward, isn’t it? There may be a wave of progress, and that’s a bright and beautiful moment, one worth celebrating. But the progress that gets televised or written about in popular media may not have as much of an impact on everyone we think or expect it will. Or what you or I may see as progress may not be considered progress at all for others.

I’m particularly reminded of that pattern this week, not just because of Pride and all of the ways we struggle and strive to be treated with dignity and respect as queer and trans folks, but also because June 19th marks the observance of Juneteenth. It’s always upset me that I didn’t know what Juneteenth was until early on in law school, and ever since, it’s changed my perspective about what freedom looks like and what it doesn’t.

On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger, accompanied by union soldiers, landed at Galveston, TX, and read General Order No. 3. He spoke these words:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an ABSOLUTE [emphasis added] equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

The tidings of freedom reached the approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas gradually as individual plantation owners informed their bondsmen over the months following the end of the war. The news brought forth an array of personal celebrations, the first of which were used as political rallies to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights. But opportunities to gather and celebrate have taken on different shapes over many years, including public entertainment, picnics, and family reunions with pageants, parades and ball games. However these celebrations happen to be organized, Juneteenth has provided a public opportunity to recall that milestone in human rights that that particular call to freedom represents for us as African-Americans.

But here’s the thing… It took two and a half years for many of those folks to even know that their lives were supposed to be changing for the better. And even AFTER the order was read and plantation owners began informing their workers, not much actually changed for many of them. An Order had been signed that was meant to secure freedoms for people of African descent that the systems of governance and understanding around them weren’t prepared to either promote or enforce in any legitimate way. Hear me. Freedoms were secured that the existing systems of governance and understanding weren’t prepared to promote or enforce. The law of the land had been changed, but the hearts of the people had not yet caught up.

And THIS was what my father was most afraid of for me. He wanted a better life for us than he and mom had known growing up in the 1950s and 60s, but he knew that, despite how free we were supposed to be to live life to the fullest, he also knew that systems of oppression were still as much a part of my life as they were a part of his and our forebears. These systems just don’t call to mind nooses or white sheets anymore; instead, they look more like policies that have particularly negative impact on same-gender loving people. Or they look like illustrations on restroom doors that don’t honor a broader mosaic of gender identity and expression. Or they look like the prison industrial complex. Or they look like overproduction and waste that’s doing harm to the Earth. And yes, sometimes those systems can and do look like well-meaning people who want desperately to do right by people of differing experiences, but because they have absolutely no idea how to make room for all of us to live fully in community, ultimately end up doing more harm than good.

These systems of oppression that are alive and well today may not seem as obvious as they used to. And so it can be easy sometimes to say, “Look at how far we’ve come!” without looking beyond what exists within our own reach. Probably more than anyone else on earth, my mom knew that dad had been denied dreams and opportunities that make up a list too long to name. So they not only worked to ensure that the same disparities they experienced would not also land at my doorstep, but dad also reminded us, perhaps in more ways than he realized, to be aware of what was going on beyond our own realm of understanding and, as much as our time and talent will allow, to help build up a world in which my freedom is bound up in yours. And yours is bound up in mine.

Vincent Harding, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado and someone who spent a lifetime building up communities, died on May 19th. To memorialize him, Krista Tippet, the host of NPR’s On Being, aired an interview she did with him back in 2011. During that interview, Harding spoke passionately about how much we have to learn about how to talk to and engage with one another in ways that matter most. He spent a lifetime gauging how far we’ve come by how far we have left to go. He believed, with every fiber of his being, that if we are called to be a truly multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, we have to embrace our fullest capacities to listen to and learn from one another.

To help folks understand his point, he told a story that’s worth sharing on this Boston Pride weekend. A number of young people had been invited to a colleague’s house to talk about why they were involved in their communities the way they were. One of the youth approached Dr. Harding to engage him in conversation. The young man told him that he stayed in his community because he knew that they needed something to be hopeful about, so he and some of his friends looked to each other for strength, supported each other and their families in times of need. You have to stand in the darkness and open up possibilities that others can’t see, the young man said. Harding noted that, “If we teach young people to run away from the darkness, rather than to open up the light in the darkness – to be the candles, the signposts – then we are doing great harm to them and the communities they’ve come out of.”

Our call is to be those signposts, especially now and especially in ways and places that give us the opportunity to lean into the struggles and disparities that still exist in our communities. So as I stand here in my rainbow stole as an openly identified trans clergy person of color who receives more love and support than I know what to do with, I also have to remember Jane Doe. She is a transgender teen of color who has been wrongfully placed in solitary confinement in an adult prison in Connecticut. No charges have ever been filed, but they’re convinced that she’s too dangerous to put anywhere else. I also have to be mindful of Sunnie Kahle, who was kicked out of her school, not because she was giving her classmates or teachers trouble, or because she was not excelling in school. She was kicked out because her hair was supposedly too short. And I have to remember the kids at Sylvia’s Place, a shelter for queer and Trans youth who’ve been kicked out of their homes because of who they are.  Despite recent victories in our courts, there are still thousands of LGBTQ youth on the streets. Our work is not yet done; we are all not yet free.

Harding stressed that “all knowledge is available to us, if we are willing to seek it.” He also said that knowledge is hard to find if we get satisfied with and stuck in our own victories.  And so as we gather grateful for the gift of life itself, may we do as we prayed today – to be mindful that to fully respect life means both to celebrate what life is and to insist on what it can become. Our lives and the lives of all those on the way depend on it.

Amen. Ashe. Blessed Be.

Where the Street Has No Name

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2013 by Rev. Mykal Slack

Last Sunday, I had a really powerful and engaging time preaching at First Parish Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist.  Although I’m a regular attendee and feel particularly connected to the people and its mission of becoming a multiracial, multicultural justice-making community, I’d never actually preached there before.  It was truly a blessing for me to worship with the community in that way, so I thought I’d share the sermon here.  And the best part?  The message seemed to resonate with folks and had an impact that was palpable.  Feel free to let me know how it strikes you…

Where the Street Has No Name

            In her book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Sharon Salzberg wrote a chapter entitled “faith and fear.”  In that chapter’s opening pages, she writes:

No matter how much we want it to be otherwise, the truth is that we are not in control of the unfolding of our experiences.  Despite our search for stability and prediction, for the center of our lives to hold firm, it never does.  Life is wilder than that – a flow we can’t command or stave off.  We can affect and influence and impact what happens, but we can’t wake up in the morning and decide what we will encounter and feel and be confronted by during the day. (76)

She goes on to say that “when life feels out of control, our most ready response is fear.  When fear dominates,” she says, “our sense of possibility collapses.  It limits our options, strangles creativity, restricts our vision….” (78-79)

Thanks a lot, Sharon, for reading me without knowing anything about me!!!  Don’t you hate that?  When you read something profound like that and the only thing you can think is:  ‘Were you looking over my shoulder when I did that?’ Or ‘Were you reading my mind when I thought that?’

I’ve been knee-deep in an ongoing conversation with others and within my own spirit about this unfolding of experience that Salzberg is talking about.  Is there enough room in the human heart, mind and spirit for the realities of it, what it calls on us to do, who it calls us to be and what it moves us toward, if, that is, we can get out of the way long enough to let it?  It is precisely that unfolding of experience that makes change so hard to step into, right?  I’m totally fine with this change business, as long as you give me the script first… Right??  I see this unpredictable unfolding, this dominating fear, happening every day.  I see it in myself, and I can feel the intensity of it in others as I do the work I’m called to do in communities of all faiths.  And I go back often to questions like:  What am I supposed to do about it? Who am I supposed to be through it?  What can we do together as we encounter this fear of the unknown?  And so, here I am, at this moment in time, wrestling with these questions again. My great joy this morning is that I get the pleasure of wrestling with them, if only just a little bit, with you J

Last week from Wednesday to Saturday, my honey, LeLaina and I and some of our dearest friends and colleagues were able to attend the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.  For those of you who may not know what that is, it’s a gathering of Trans and Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations and income levels, our families and friends for opportunities to connect, learn and growth together.  We spend three days talking about issues across a broad spectrum, including medical care, emotional and spiritual well-being and creative expression.  It is, hands down, one of the most empowering gatherings I’ve ever been a part of, not just as a Trans-identified person who constantly longs for deep connection with people of similar experience, but also as a human being who cares deeply about the ways in which these kinds of gatherings can pave the way for healing. And let’s be honest. How many opportunities do you think I and others get to be surrounded by literally thousands of trans/GNC folks and the people who love us most?  Not too many…

So there I was, over the course of four days, with a fair amount of work to do (I was sitting on two panels and leading worship), surrounded by some people I care for deeply and know well and quite a lot of people I’d never met before, and I was AFRAID!!  Now, for those of you who may not know me as well, it wasn’t the sheer size of the conference space or the subject matter or even the numbers of people I had an opportunity to meet that frightened me.  The thing that unnerved me was that, as a person of faith who tends to believe that how we connect and heal is bound up in how we understand our faith, I knew that I was likely to hear people’s stories of faith…and spirituality…and deep connection…and loss of spirit…and painful separation from community…and longing for healing in community…and misunderstanding…and mistreatment…and fear of what’s to come.  I was afraid of what I might be invited to carry.  I was afraid of whether or not I would know how to hold that space of honesty and trust the “right” way.  And I didn’t fully understand until I got home that this fear, and this fear alone, was at the heart of so much of my anxiety over that four-day period.

Isn’t there a script?  Isn’t there a book or two or three that I can read to help me figure out how to hold that space?  Isn’t there a way to posture myself, so that I can be ready for what comes whenever it comes?  Better yet, isn’t there a group of people, or a company, or, dare I even say it, a denomination that I can align myself with to make the impact of what I may hear less jarring?  As the questions rush forward, my mind starts to scramble for any answers I’ve managed to pick up along the way.  But, if you’re anything like me, when that many questions rush in, it gets harder and harder to stay focused, and then nothing comes through.  But something has to come through because it matters! I have to say or do the right thing to ensure that this opportunity for deep connection doesn’t pass us by! Nothing…  Options limited, creativity strangled, vision restricted, and before you know it, shut down!

But Salzberg assures us that there’s more to the story:

“Faith, in contrast [to fear], reminds us of the ever-changing flow of life, with all its movement and possibility.  Faith is the capacity of the heart that allows us to draw close to the present and find there the underlying thread connecting the moment’s experience to the fabric of all of life.  It opens us to a bigger sense of who we are and what we are capable of. (80)

As much as I like to praise and shout in worship, at the heart of my faith is being still and trying my best to be quiet. The deep connections we are called to make with one another have nothing to do with saying or doing the right things and everything to do with being present, as Bishop Charleston offered in our Call to Worship this morning, “without conditions and without needing for anybody to change themselves, hide themselves, or explain themselves.”  If deep connection is what we seek with and among one another, it cannot be scripted precisely because deep connections are meant to run deep!  And what runs deep for me may be different from what runs deep for you, right?  So my needs as a Trans-identified black man with educational privilege and limited income, straight-perceived but very much queer identified, lover of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ and of the Buddha, and believer in the power of all faiths to impact the healing of this world may be different from yours, right?

If deep connection is what we seek as we talk about class and economic justice, then we must be prepared to stop, be present and listen because deep connections are meant to run deep.  If deep connection is what we seek as we work to unlearn what we may think we know about gender and sexuality, then we must be prepared to stop, be present and listen because deep connections are meant to run deep.  If deep connection is what we seek as we endeavor to bring all of who we each are to worship, then we must be prepared to stop, be present and listen because deep connections are meant to run deep.  If deep connection is what we seek in order to recognize that each of us is differently abled and equally valued, then we must be prepared to stop, be present and listen to the richness of these abilities because deep connections are meant to run deep.

Deep connections are meant to run deep…  And thankfully, I had someone very dear to me telling me in all kinds of ways that my only charge in these incredibly powerful and impacting moments is to hold the space enough so that the person who is on the verge of showing up believes enough in their own safety to show up fully.  Thank you, Teo, for reminding me that we will never understand that which we have not been intentional about making room for.

Now let’s not fool ourselves.  Holding space for the deepest truths of people’s lives isn’t easy.  And yet, we are called to do it in this place and outside this place because First Parish Cambridge endeavors to be a multiracial, multicultural justice-making community.  Our collective project of existing in this space and in the world, by its very nature, involves learning a little at a time about how to build up the space within ourselves and the spaces outside ourselves.  In MCC, we refer to this as “tearing down walls and building up hope.”  And it takes a real opening up of spirit and an opening up of one’s faith to trust what’s possible in the spaces between us all.  I’ve listened to plenty of people try to explain what the Holy Spirit is.  But this is precisely what it is for me.  That THING that happens when the air we breathe, when the space between us carries within it a deep desire for all of us to be fully welcomed, fully embraced for who we are, fully celebrated.

This journey of faith offers us a wild ride, not only into the unknown, but also into the unknowable.  It’s up to each of us, with a little help from our friends sometimes, not to get caught up in HOW to capture what that journey looks like, but to keep our hearts, minds and spirits attuned to the deep brilliance that it offers on its own terms in the here and now – with all the limitless options, inspired creativity and boundless vision our faith can enliven within us.  It’s a pretty remarkable place to aspire to, bear witness to and share with others.

The lyrics of the song that inspired the title of this sermon represent a vision of this remarkable place.  Paul David Hewson, most commonly known as Bono, front man of the band U2, had heard a story about the streets of Belfast, North Ireland, where a person’s religion and income are supposed to be evident simply by the street they live on.  He contrasted this with the anonymity he felt when visiting Ethiopia.  In a Rolling Stone article in 2005, he said that the song “contains a powerful idea.  In the desert, we meet God [or the divine].  In parched times, in fire and blood, we discover who we are.”  I believe Bono is talking about a place where we don’t have to have the answers, or know the way.  I believe he’s talking about a place where, all we have to do, even and especially in the moments that we’re most frightened by or uncertain of, is show up, be present and listen.  It’s an “unfinished lyric,” Bono offered, where our greatest potential is as yet unrealized.  It’s where the force of love and logic that exists in the world isn’t meant to be shaped by us humans.  We’re meant to be shaped by it.

Amen and Axe