This has been long and difficult week, good people. If you are like me, since the results of Tuesday’s election have become clear, I’ve found myself going through all kinds of emotions. I should say up front that while this church is not in the business of endorsing candidates and we do not assume that we all voted for the same candidates on Tuesday, we do support a set of values in this church and hopefully support those values in the electoral process. And in this election many of the values we hold dear felt as if they were under attack.
Last Friday morning I was doing what I usually do on Friday mornings, I was headed to yoga class. It is not far from my home and I have a regular path to get there. But traffic was backed up on my usual street so I tried another and there were signs that that road was closed. I thought there must have been some traffic accident. So I tried another street and that, too, was closed and police were there with signs that the road is closed. In a distance I see what looks to be a parade in formation. I kind of remember at this point that it is Veterans Day. I park the car and figure I’ll just walk a couple extra blocks to my yoga class.
As I’m getting out of the car I see three people coming at me walking at a brisk clip and they are carrying and waving big American flags. And in that moment I feel this wave of fear go through me. It was as if someone was coming after me and I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these people were on their way to the Veteran’s Day parade, flags and all. Now that is a good and beautiful thing… but in the days since the election, that was not my first reaction to people coming at me waving flags.
As I walk to my yoga class I notice that I’m trembling and I notice that some sense of safely that I usually have is not there. That perhaps has summed up this week for me. I still have a ways to go to get back to some sense of normal this week. I still have a ways to go before that lingering sense of fear goes away.
The results of Tuesday’s election are antithetical to so much of what I hold dear as a Unitarian Universalist and post election I am left feeling fearful.
I remember a similar kind of fear back in 2004 when the ban on gay marriage was approved by voters here in Oregon. After that vote I remember that sense of disorientation, I remember then too how I found myself questioning my safety. Was I as a gay man still safe in this state that I can come to love and call home?
We have all known times, I expect, when our hopes get turned on their heads… like this past Tuesday, for many of us … and at times such as this it is important to remember that there have been difficult times before. I think of the work for LGBTQ rights and all the ups and downs that have come with it. I think back to 2004 when the gay marriage ban passed here in Oregon. That was not long after that wonderful time the year before when gay folks could marry here in Multnomah country and how here we were a few months later and it felt like it has all come crashing down. The backlash felt swift and furious and very personal and I remember wondering how long it would be before marriage equality was the law of the land. Turns out that it took 10 years but it did happen.
What I remember is the tears present in this sanctuary during all those times—the up times and the down times. And I remember how people kept on. I remember couples talking about receiving those letters in the mail that their marriages had been essentially voided. But I also remember how they—how so many of us—kept on working. They stayed focused on what was important. I’m trying to remember that today.
Over many years and many anti-gay ballot measures, queer people were called to come out, even when coming out wasn’t at all comfortable. And allies, too, had to come out as allies. And that, too, wasn’t always comfortable. But I also know that that is how change happens.
Our world is changing in so many ways and it would be so easy to let fear be that which carries the day. Making one group—be they immigrants, people of color, women—making one group after another into the other. That is when fear so pervasive around us. There is a lot I am still trying to understand after the election but one thing that I’m clear on this day is that we can’t let that happen. We can’t let ourselves be guided by fear. It was Martin Luther King who reminded us that the best antidote to fear is love. If in fear we separate, with love we seek unity. In fear we see the other as just that, the other. And in love we see what we have in common.
I’d like to say this is easy work, good people, and in one way it is. Love, I believe, can guide us. But really doing that, really trying to live out the values we hold dear, that is not easy work but I believe it is the work we are called to do.
At times like this there’s an impulse to want to retreat into the proverbial closet. But we can’t do that.
The stakes are high good people. Let us say no to fear. Let us say yes to love.
Bill, Part I
Thank you, Tom. “Say no to fear. Say yes to love.” You all have heard me preach that message as a source of hope for us in a divided world. The Beloved Community. Inherent worth and dignity. Power in our pluralism. The power of love. You have heard me preach it.
Now, the job of the preacher is to tell the truth. We get to as much hope as we can, but the message has to be the truth. And my truth this week, like the truth for many of you, has been complicated. It has been a real test to remain grounded because it has felt like the ground just dramatically shifted, and not for the good. It has been a real test to be hopeful because the sources of hope, on which we have relied, seemed to be overrun by anger and fear and hate.
The image of the first Black President sitting graciously with the president-elect who had questioned his citizenship, his birth and his right to sit in the Oval Office…
That articulate thoughtful President who promised hope and progress, calmly handing power over to a man who offered him nothing but disrespect and has given every indication that he will trample on progress we have made…
It was so hard to watch.
So hard to hear from, and hear of young people of color, Queer folks, Muslims, immigrants who feared there truly was no place for them in this new America.
Hard to hear my daughter and other women fear what this new world would mean for them.
So hard to be present to my own grief and fear…because I am so sure that “making America great again” is intended to put me and so many people that I love back in “our place” once again.
I look at the map with the huge swath of red and wonder if I am welcome in this new world or only in the smaller enclaves of blue. I hear names mentioned for Attorney General of our nation and I wonder how long it will be before they come for me. I am told by my son not to let my grandsons hear any news broadcasts because they get too upset, and I wonder whether there will be a place for them.
But a slim minority of our fellow citizens, 60 million of us, just voted for a world in which those questions are not only real, but reasonable.
I have found myself in what I can only describe as a state of shock. That shock is receding, but only gradually. I am moving slowly through this and I need to honor that.
The “not my President” movement, and the peaceful protests call out to me. And…I may go there yet.
But the place that I am struggling most is a theological place. Our theology has been such a problem for me in these last few days.
My theological problem is that I really am a Universalist. I just cannot find it in myself to write off 60 million of my fellow citizens.
Though the political movement that just won the election is rife with bigotry, I cannot simply write all those folks off as just bigots.
Each and every one of those racist, zenophobic, homophobic, heterosexist, immigrant hating, ableist folks has worth and dignity just like I do. And I hate that.
Because that is the other problem I have had. I believe that those who just won the election would rather I not exist…and that many of you not exist either, or not exist and live with the values that you hold.
How do we reconcile, make sense of, live with the tension of those two truths:
That we cannot write off those with whom we disagree and yet we know that those folks would rather we not exist.
Much of my own reflection and discernment…my own prayer…over these last days has involved just knowing that both those things are true.
I have had to begin my own response to the election by bearing witness to those two truths in my own life.
Tom, Part II
Last Sunday, Kate Birdsall talked about how this election has stirred up all kinds of muck at the bottom of our collective stream and just not knowing what to do with all that muck. That image of what has been stirred up—and continues to be stirred up—has been with me this week. What do we do with all that stuff moving forward?
I’d like to say that I have a clear sense of what this all means. I’d like to say that I have a clear sense of how it is I and we are to respond. But truth is I’m still trying to figure that out.
But I think there are at least some things I know. The first one is that we are first of all called to bear witness to life—and that means bearing witness to beauty but to the brokenness around us as well. In this election it is important to bear witness to the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the anti-able ism that has been so widespread in the election. Those words—aimed at so many of us in this country—have been antithetical to the values we hold. What do we do with all of that now that the speaker, the advocate, of so many of those awful things, has been elected? Does it validate all those words somehow? Are we supposed to just turn the page and start fresh? I don’t think we can. We must bear witness that words do hurt. We must bear witness that when leaders spew those kinds of words there are consequences. We need to bear witness to the muck.
But I think that bearing witness post election also means a commitment to try to understand what is going on in our country. Just what are all the reasons for the result of this election? It also asks us to try to understand what is happening.
I was struck this week by a graphic in the New York Times of counties all across the United States. There was a red mark by all the counties that voted in greater numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. And what it showed was this huge swath of red starting in West Virginia and moving up around the Great Lakes to upper Midwest . I looked at that map and found myself noting that this included Wisconsin. Wisconsin is where I am from… I’m the son of cheesemakers for god’s sake… and I looked at that map and realized that these are, at least on some level, my people. Now I haven’t lived there for over 25 years—yes, I’m one of those Midwesterners who have been on the west coast long enough for this, too, to be home…
But looking at my home state and feeling so much sadness and so much anger, I had to also acknowledge how easy it was to feel that anger directed at all of those people. But in that moment I also needed to realize that those people are also my people. As much as I wanted them to be some giant faceless block of people out there as much as they were faces that started to come to mind for me. People I grew up with. People I went to school with.
I also needed to be reminded that they are people who often feel like they have been left behind. And I know that most of them are not bad people. Most of them I know are on the whole good and kind and decent people. Most of them, I think, try to do the right thing.
But many of them also live in what I imagine to be a world of some fear. They may well come from a place of isolation, even a place of anger. As much as I like to think of where I grew up as some kind of Lake Woebegon, modernity and globalization have not always been kind when it comes to the kinds of jobs that are available and just how fast the world seems to be changing.
Now the sad thing is that it is usually the folks who have been left behind for a long, long time in our country—if they were ever on the bus to be left behind in the first place—people of color, immigrants, queer people, women, disabled people—lots of people on the margins have felt left behind for a long time and unfortunately now just like they have been for so long they are the ones that get made into the other.
Truth is our world is changing rapidly—in good ways and in challenging ways. One important lens is to see this election—to see much of what has been happening around the world of late—as a giant reaction to modernity. As our world has become smaller, more global, more multicultural. And with that can come a deep sense of loss and fear around all the changes. And this election is a reminder that leaders can either call out our most base instincts or they can, as Lincoln would say, call out the better angels of our nature. It is important to member that we can choose how to respond.
Change is not easy, it is often threatening. And we see that all around us. Even here at the church, change can be hard to embrace. But our task, I believe, is to always be mindful of who’s at the table and who’s not. It is in times of change that we are asked to really think about and act from a place of knowing what our highest values are. It may be sometimes that until those values feel threatened, it is easy to forget just how important they really are.
The spiritual task, I think, is to try to make a welcome table for all those who want a seat. The spiritual task is to be wary when anyone gets put into that place of the other. But that, my friends, is not an easy task. It means we all have a lot of work to do. It means we all have a lot of work to do. But I also know that we’ll be doing that work together.
Bill, Part II
A Welcome Table for all Who Want a Seat. Amen.
I need to tell you that I am not going to wrap this one up with a nice bow in these last minutes. I am not there yet. I doubt that you are there yet either. And I know that the world is not ready for ribbon.
But we need to move forward. We need to at least begin addressing the question of what moving forward might look like.
Here are a few beginning thoughts. Hear them as “my best guess…for now.”
Should we make nice? Welcome this transition of power as Obama has. Pretend the last 18 months were “just politics,” with no real meaning. Find a space in our spirits to not only say but to believe that if the new President succeeds, our nation will succeed.
I cannot get there. Because if our new president meant what he said over these last 18 months and what he has done over the last 70 years, then his success would be devastating for the only America that I am willing to salute.
We are going to need to be in resistance mode…serious resistance mode. I need to…and you need to…get past our shock. Too much is at stake. Trickle down economics. Roe v Wade. Stop and Frisk. Deportation Force. Too much is at stake for us to stay stuck in our schock.
We need to be part of the resistance. With other religious folks. With other progressive folks. Those folks are lining up from the ACLU and NAACP to the protestors on the streets.
And we need to be willing to join with those conservative folks who are available for partnership when their personal chips are on the line…those folks too.
Does that mean that we need to go to the streets? Some members and friends of this congregation already have. Should we mobilize to make our statement now? Or mobilize to maximize our impact at specific points? I think the latter…but I rethink this every day.
Should we focus on local and state issues where we have a better chance of making a real difference. Of course and always. But we cannot disregard national decisions. They are too important.
We need to resist and to protect what we have already won.
But that resistance alone is not enough. I am beginning to understand that the progressive failure in this election was the inability…or unwillingness to claim a positive vision that Americans in both red states and blue states could embrace.
Let me try to describe the shape of what I am beginning to see.
Think of a politics worthy of the Beloved Community. That politics would affirm and protect all of the individual rights we have fought so hard to win…the right to vote, the right to marry, the right to be paid fairly…all of those individual rights would be present in the politics I imagine…but more.
There would be a populism, too. But a populism uncontaminated by racism and fear. A populism which will remain incomplete until black and brown lives and immigrant lives and queer lives and female lives all truly matter. A populism not built on the backs of the most marginalized, a populism led by “we the people” as we really exists, all of us.
Because there is nothing more American than populism…if you can strip it of its racism and its fears. Nothing more Unitarian Universalist than populism if the worth and dignity of each of us is truly valued.
I am arguing for us to maintain a fundamental openness because whether any of us like it or not…and religiously we like it very much…we are all in this together. That is what the interdependent web means.
So, I am beginning to see a path that might point to hope.
What I am most certain of, however, is that our voice for the power and possibility of love has never been more needed. And that our need for community to support us through these days has never been more real.
When new members come to the enrollment ceremony and sign our membership book, we remind them that they are signing the latest in a series of books that go all the way back to the founding of this church, back now more than 150 years.
We are not the first generation at First Unitarian to face challenges. Think about all those women, to take just one example, who worked so hard to gain the right to vote, who did not live to see the first woman President of our nation. Think of the men who supported them. Think about them all.
This week we gathered and prayed and sang…and wept together. And it was important to be together. And it is important to know that we will continue to be together.
We are not in this alone. Those who have gone before are a band of angels whose stories remain with us. They continue to bear witness…as we continue to bear witness…to the better angels of our natures…and to the faith, and to the hope and to the love that abide.
Love is and love will remain the doctrine of this church.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Great mystery at the heart of things. Dear God.
Help us remember that the arc of the moral universe is long.
Help us remember that it’s bending toward justice is our work today…just as it was 6 days ago and 6 years ago and 60 years ago.
We are just the current, not the first and not the only folks who have had to work on through disappointment.
Help us remember those whose lives inspire us and give us hope. They are a cloud of witnesses urging us on.
Help us remember how strong we can be when we work together with open hearts.
Help us remember that love truly can be real if by our living we make it so.