Friday, July 31, 2015

Getting Beyond Shame -- Inner Work for Multicultural Engagement

If the new film Inside Out included a sixth feeling, it should be Shame.

Shame controls so much of what we do--or don’t do. And in this era of waking up to far more systemic racism in our culture, the last thing that anybody wants to say or do is something that could be perceived as racist. And this shame inhibits so many of us from having honest conversations and getting real.

It is human nature to not see our own biases. When one of us unintentionally says or does that is an "ouch" experience for someone else and then are confronted with what has happened, we naturally blurt out--or at least think to ourselves--“I am not a racist!”. 

Racial bias is in everyone, no matter our color. We all participate in cultural constructs that frame our experience and perceptions. We all have the need to wake up to where our perceptions are skewed and diminish others. But we can’t identify our blind spots, let alone learn to act more thoughtfully, if we can’t have direct conversations.

A waking vision came to me that has helped me identify my own spiritual work in this very human challenge. Now, I warn you, this is a really bizarre vision! 

It starts with me pulling the ends of a ribbon wrapped around my neck, shutting my head off from the rest of my body. The ribbon, I discover, is attached to a canvas bag. This bag  stretches around my torso. I knew I had to loosen the ribbon enough so I could look down into the bag. As the mouth of the bag opened enough, I gazed inside, as if I was looking down into my body through my neck. A messy, smelly, ugly mix of blood and guts churned below. It was unsightly. The primary word that described what was inside me: unseemly. 

This churning mass was clearly filled with fear, uncertainty, judgment, and---most of all--shame. As I continued to work at loosening the ribbon, I felt called to pull the canvass bag off of me. 

Once I had stripped the bag off, the vision of my torso morphed into a grey putrid mass. My insides were indistinguishable. I was filled with a knowing that my insides needed airing out, that I couldn’t effectively move through the world until I did so. 

At that moment, I realized that my gut was hidden behind my heart. The source of my conviction and clarity was hidden by--and indistinguishable from--my emotional life. I saw clearly that my spiritual work is to “air out” my insides so I can clearly discern and move from my gut--and not be so beholden to the source of my emotions. 

For me, this vision is a call to distinguish the source of conviction and wisdom within and to move more effectively through the world with a greater fire of confidence, commitment, and passion. It is also a vision that pushes people like me toward greater multicultural engagement and sensitivity. 

How so? So many of us spiritual progressives and religious liberals tend to minimize differences among us. We like to focus on how we human beings are all the same without acknowledging the reality of cultural differences. And we are unable to explore other cultures effectively because we aren’t aware of our own. It’s as if we have a ribbon wrapped around our necks, and instead of engaging difference with joy, open curiosity, and the capacity to be changed, we instead are driven by the shame, fear, and what all else is hidden in our bag. 

When have you encountered someone with significant different life experience and culture and sought to engage them in open conversation? It is so common for us to want to make a certain impression, to verify our own perspective on the world, to be driven by what we don’t want to acknowledge is within us. 

I know that I have multicultural sensitivity work to do when I catch myself speaking faster rather than simply be responsive to the person in front of me. I am inclined to speak from my head rather than relate from my heart and gut.

If a ribbon is around your neck, and you move through the world primarily from above your neck, join me in working to loose that ribbon, pulling down the bag, and airing out what is hidden inside you. 

Then we can live with greater freedom, openness, and vitality. We can revel in the differences among us human beings and enter into ever more powerful and influential relationships. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Remembering: We Belong to One Another

In the wake of recent events, I find myself returning to the work of my favorite theologian, Howard Thurman. 

From the The Luminous Darkness, he writes "The fact that the first 23 years of my life were spent in Florida and in Georgia has left its scars deep in my spirit and has rendered me terribly sensitive to the churning abyss separating white from black.... Nevertheless, knowing all of that, experiencing all of that, nevertheless a strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all men [and women] are members of one of another."

Howard Thurman lived out of a profound conviction that we human beings belong to one another. His conviction occupied his entire life.

Thurman would become the founder of the first interracial, interdenominational church in America: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. He would mentor Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders. He would become the first African American dean at an Ivy League school. He would touch so many lives both during his life and after through his profound reflections and ministry.

At the end of his extraordinary life, he began putting together a compilation of his writings that articulated what was most important to him. I find it striking that in the first passage, he begins by quoting George Fox: “There are miracles in the spirt of which the world knows nothing.” The rest of the passage is below.

We all participate in both an inward journey and a journey within the wider world. What is not entirely obvious, Thurman suggests, is that our journey and participation in the world is largely guided by our inward journey--by what we love, by what we commit ourselves to, by how we cultivate the disciplines of the spirit. 

This summer I am taking the opportunity to go through For the Inward Journey. It is the compilation of his writings that he began just before he died. Because he didn’t finish, his daughter Anne Spencer Thurman finished the task. The result is a collection of essays and reflections that I first discovered in seminary. 

In these writings I find not only a kindred spirit but a guide. 

It matters that he carried the scars of growing up black in Florida and Georgia in the early 20th century. He came to understand Jesus as someone who knew oppression and struggle, who provided him a guide on how to stay connected to his deepest calling all the while heading into his growing edge. 

I invite you to join me in reflecting on the work of Howard Thurman. For the Inward Journey is an excellent introduction to his writings that I first began reflecting on when I took a course on his life and work while in seminary. 

Love with Courage,

From For the Inward Journey by Howard Thurman
"There are miracles in the spirit of which the world knows nothing." Such is the testimony that comes to us from the lips of George Fox. Our lives are surrounded day by day and night after eventful night by the stupendous revelations of what [humanity] is discovering about the world around us. Each day we seem to penetrate more deeply into the process of nature. Thousands of women and men with utter devotion give themselves to the pursuit of secret disclosures from the chamber of mysteries of which they themselves are a part and from which they have come forth. It is as if there is a mighty collective and individual effort to remember what they were before the mind became mind and the body became flesh and blood. So successful has been the appropriation of the knowledge of the mysteries of air and wind and earth that what a decade ago would have startled and frightened the most mature adult is today taken for granted by the simplest child. We speak of going to the moon not as denizens of the shadows where unrealities tumble over one another in utter chaos. Rather we speak of going to the moon and back again with voices that are brimming over with an arrogance that even a god may not command. 

But let one arise in our midst to speak of secrets of another kind. Let one say that the world of the spirit has vast frontiers which call to us as our native heath. At once the deep split in our spirits reveals itself. Out of our eyes, as we listen, there leaps the steady glow of recognition while our lips speak of superstition and delusion. Can the miracles in the spirit be real, true? Because they seem always to be personal and private, does this not add to their unreality? 

The miracles of the spirit? What are they? The resolving of inner conflict upon which all he lances of the mind have splintered and fallen helplessly from the hand; the daring of the spirit that puts to rout the evil deed and the decadent unfaith; the experiencing of new purposes which give courage to the weak, hope to the despairing, life to those burdened by sin and failure; the quality of reverence that glows within the mind, illumining it with incentive to bring necessity for inner and outer peace as the meaning of all [humanity]’s striving; the discovery that the “Covenant of Brotherhood” is the witness of the work of the Spirit of God in the life of human beings and the hymn of praise offered as Thanksgiving and Glory!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Also Time for a Rainbow Flag

On this Fourth of July weekend, I am waving not only an American flag but also a rainbow flag. I’m thinking about the over 20 couples I have stood with when they exchanged wedding vows but had no marriage certificate for me to sign, because they could not obtain one on account of their same gender. 

Last week, on June 26, the Supreme Court announced its historic ruling that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. This has been a day prayed for, longed for---and worked for--for decades. This ruling has, in one single day, made our nation “a more perfect union.” 

Literally minutes after the ruling was announced, I gave a keynote address to the alumni of Starr King School for the Ministry. In the room were people who had been working towards this moment for ten, twenty, and even fifty years. In the room were people whose love and commitment had not yet been recognized by the state in which they live and serve. When I named the fact that this historic day came about in no small part by the efforts of my seminary’s alumni, tears and cheers came forth. 

My denomination, Unitarian Universalism, has been ordaining openly gay and lesbian ministers for over 40 years. Twenty years ago, we as a denomination affirmed our commitment to marriage equality. But activists among us have been working toward more sensitivity and cultural acceptance for gay people and gay marriage for much, much longer than this. And so this Supreme Court ruling is worthy of now raising a rainbow flag!!!

It wasn’t lost on me that on that very day, President Obama delivered the eulogy at the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney who, along with eight of his parishioners, was killed by a young man infected by white supremacist rhetoric. 

That racism lurks in our society is undeniable. Seven African American churches have burned down over the past week. The rhetoric of hate and fear is pernicious. And it must be called out.

Common sense calls for the symbols of this hatred to be taken off all government property. And so the Confederate flag has come down from government property in Alabama on the executive order of the governor. Next week the South Carolina legislature will most likely so the same. 

Even NASCAR officials are grappling with what to do--and requesting suspension of this flag in respect to the victims of the Charleston shootings. And episodes of the Duke of Hazzard have been pulled... 

Flags are potent symbols. We should take care and consider what kind of flag we wave. 
Sometimes on the Fourth of July, I have pulled out an American flag. Sometimes I have pulled out a flag that displays the planet earth, wanting to lift up the dignity of people all the earth over. 

This Fourth of July, I return to the American flag in celebration of our nation becoming a more perfect union. And I take out a rainbow flag, in solidarity with my many gay and lesbian friends who now can receive the same legal benefits of marriage that I do.