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General Assembly 2014 Event 202
Presented by the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
REV JASON SHELTON: Good morning.
CONGREGATION: Good morning.
REV JASON SHELTON: Anybody here from the West Coast?
[SEVERAL AUDIENCE MEMBERS CHEER]
REV JASON SHELTON: Oh, look at the West Coast people. It is 5 o'clock in the morning for you. All right, for the West coast people. Yes. Please rise in body or in spirit and join in our in-gathering song for this morning's worship, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."
[MUSIC PLAYING "COME THOU FOUNT OF EVERY BLESSING"]
Amen. Please be seated.
DR. REV. MARK BELLETINI: Yes, indeed. Come, thou font of every blessing. Tune our hearts to sing thy grace. We are here now, oh love. So now come strong, reliable current of the life of love among us and between us and beyond us. Come flow through this time as a great river cuts through a solid terrain with liveliness and flash and sparkle and power.
Come and flow. Fiercely flow. Wash away the tick tock time of clock and calendar, and restore to us right now, right now, right now.
The sacred time kept flowing by our heart beats and by the breath of our bodies and by our hush. By our vulnerability and the attention of our yes to this bright moment. Come and let us celebrate together.
DR. MARK A. HICKS: Love is the chalice that holds the oil. Love is the oil that feeds the wick. Love is the wick that burns with abandon. Love is the flame which dances an ancient pattern. We light the chalice of love.
REV. MEG RILEY: Good morning.
Good morning, morning people. I'm excited to be here with you early birds this morning. Love reaches out. That's what we're here together to affirm this week. And no one can really argue with that idea, even here, I think.
Love reaches out. Could you reach out now to the people who are watching this at home and shout out good morning to them? One, two, three. Good morning!
CONGREGATION: Good morning!
REV. MEG RILEY: To all of you who feel like you're alone in your homes, you are not. We are all there with you, wanting coffee after this. Love gives, love offers itself. Loves says, here take more when you try to mooch a little bit from the side secretly.
Love generates more love the way spam email generates more spam emails.
The way eating one pistachio leads to eating another pistachio. Love always says more, more, more. That's why we aspire to stand on the side of love. We want to be the love people.
Huh? Abstractly, at least. Because we've all— well, I'll speak for myself. I've broken my vows a thousand times. Over and over, I've let fear lead to control, lead to clutching. A grip so fierce that love couldn't break in with a crowbar. I've been afraid of how I'll look, who'll I'll hurt, what mistakes I will make, and who will simply roll their eyes, shake their head, and walk away.
Love reaches out, but too often in the privacy of our fear we dodge and escape its reach. But what if we didn't? What difference would it make if we let love catch us. What would we do if we dared to believe in Love's power to heal and to transform and to save? What if we believed that Unitarian Universalism could save us?
I will say something out loud that I'm often too shy to say. Unitarian Universalism saved me.
It did, and it does, and it continues to save me every day. This morning, already, the fact that you are here is saving me. Emma's purple hair is saving me. The choir is saving me. All of you devotedly coming back again and again, after you were probably up late last night, you're saving me.
We spend so much time focused on what's wrong, on our inadequacies. We are so hard on ourselves and each other. What if we dared to believe that as radically imperfect as we are, in practicing this faith, despite the fact that every one of us lets ourselves and each other's down, still Unitarian Universalist faith endures, holds, offers new life, restores. Helps us still despite everything. Despite ourselves. To know in ourselves that we are not alone. Despite our radical imperfection, we are loved and we can love.
Unitarian Universalism transmitted through thousands of hands and faces, words and songs, saves me from persistent beliefs of inferiority that are deep inside me that I wrestle with daily. Because I am female. Because I am lesbian. Because I am big, and loud, and messy. Despite these poisonous beliefs of inferiority, love is deeper still.
Unitarian Universalism transmitted through thousands of hands and faces, and words and songs, saves me from persistent beliefs of superiority that are deep inside me that I wrestle with daily. Because I have enough money. Because I am white. Because I am American. Despite these poisonous believes of superiority, love is deeper still.
What would it mean to look at our world through the eyes of love? What if we could bear to keep looking, keep loving, even when it broke our hearts to do so? What if we knew we trusted that love endured?
This week, I invite you to try an experiment and hold the intention of looking at yourself and each other through the eyes of love, and see what we might create. Why not use this week as a laboratory to practice love? To practice loving and to practice being loved.
There are people here who love well, who can teach us things. I study them carefully. We will hear from some of them this morning, but they are everywhere, all around us. Parents and caregivers and partners who use love to remain patient and gentle when it would be easy to snap into harshness. Artists who use love to give voice to our heart's longings. Healers who use love to listen, to care with humility. Activists who use love to work for the common good. Marginalized people who use loved to summon strength when others— to see their own worth and dignity when others would deny it.
People like Jorell Young, who can't be here in person because he is incarcerated. But who asked us to bring his picture and put it in the front row, which it is.
Jorell said, if anyone asks, who's that? Or, why is that picture here? Just tell them, well he's a UU, a church member, and very determined to be here today. Jorell, who told Reverend Patty France, CLF's prison chaplain, thanks for saving my life, a life you saved and didn't even know about it. Jorell, who through his determination to be here, reaches out from behind bars to save us, to remind us of those we forget. So many.
This week, in worship, in workshops, in community, may we savor every variety of love. May loving kindness be our currency above all others this week. The holiest of holy grails we seek. The story we go home to tell about how this faith saves us. Let us share these days together in such a way that we can go home and say, I now know that bold love it is possible, and that has changed everything.
DR. REV. MARK BELLETINI: "Living the Parable," by Neal Bowers. Wanting to be helpful, we all see ourselves as the Samaritan rather than the priest or the assistant. And never as the bruised man in the ditch, stripped and penniless, taken to a room smelling of figs and tallow where he turns painfully in bed, tonguing his chipped tooth, touching his swollen eye.
After all, how could anyone imagine himself mugged somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho, when he could ride in like some minor deity, on a donkey packed with oil and wine. His fat purse tucked away, credit unlimited. Better to be the one without cracked ribs, safe on the hard packed road, pausing long enough to help some creature with no luck. A dog. A sheep. A beaten man. Not one of us.
TAQUIENA BOSTON: "Living the Parable," by Neil Bowers. Wanting to be helpful, we all see ourselves as the Samaritan rather than the priest or his assistant. And never as the bruised man in the ditch, stripped and penniless, taken to a room smelling of figs and tallow where he turns painfully in bed, tonguing his chipped tooth, touching this swollen eye.
After all, how could anyone imagine himself mugged somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho when he could ride in like some minor deity on a donkey packed with oil and wine. His fat purse tucked away, credit unlimited. Better to be the one without cracked ribs, safe on the hard, packed road, pausing long enough to help some creature with no luck. A dog. A sheep. A beaten man. But not one of us.
DR. REV. MARK BELLETINI: Our lives flow down the course of time like currents in a river. The ones who walk to the other side of the road are part of that river. The one who stops to help is part of that river. The one who lies broken and wounded is as much a part of that river as the other two.
There is healing in the water's only when all the currents meet each other and meet themselves as they flow forward together. All are wounded. All desire to help. All have to face their fears. There is healing in the waters when they flow together. There is love in the waters.
[MUSIC PLAYING "HEALING WATERS"]
TAQUIENA BOSTON: In the company of our ancestors, hush. Hush. (SINGING) Somebody's calling my name.
This is a spiritual I've sung countless times in the sanctuary of All Souls Church Unitarian, the community I call my home congregation. But at the September 29 Sunday morning worship, it was as if I was hearing that African American song for the very first time. Six days later, 17 travelers and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean for Ghana, West Africa as Sankofa pilgrims on a spiritual journey back home.
Sankofa is an Asante word that means looking backward to move forward. Back home? How do you go back to a place where you've never been? True, I know that at least one of my ancestries originated on the continent of Africa, but that was centuries ago. What was Africa to me now?
Writer James Baldwin said, history is not a procession of illustrious people. It's about what happens to people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.
The history of the transatlantic slave trade, the [INAUDIBLE] compelled me to say yes to this journey. Hush. Hush.
There is a verse not familiar to me in that spiritual. It goes, I am so glad I'm on my journey home. The Sankofa pilgrimage turned out to be a home going of sorts. Not just for me, who carries the name African American as a place keeper for the invisible past, unknown places, and nameless people who never again saw the place or people they called home in their lifetimes.
We Sanfoka pilgrims, we lived the experiences of captive children, women, and men at the slave river, the walls of remembrance, the doors of no return at Cape Coast and Elmina slave castles. A Fante priest poured libation for the ancestors whose names we called out. We literally stood on the tears, blood, and sweat of millions of those people that the transatlantic slave trade had happened to.
We were hushed as we took in the enormity of that African history, which is also our American history. Hush. Hush. Ancestors called me to the Sankofa pilgrimage, held in the blessings and prayers of my congregation. My African ancestors, through me, found their way home.
REGIE GIBSON: When they speak of our time they will say, they will say it was a time when truth abandoned our words. When running swords passed for a false messiah's mouth. When television super shrinks conducted group psychosis. When drugged up teenagers lived in a haze of oblivion.
They will say this was when we hamster wheeled inside the jagged jaws of death. Death, that stood above us licking it's murderous lips. When blues and jazz meant nothing to the asterisk of adolescence faces lost in the footnote of pop culture hysteria.
They will say this was the hour of the falling towers. When halos of metal rained screams on our cities and smoke blackened the skies until the sun was a jaundiced memory. They will say it was a time when English spoken with the wrong accent with an uncertain gate, and both red and blue states forgot that God is color blind.
They will say this was a time that we drank of Hollywood's hemlock as intellectual cowards in power and bowed to the powers and promises of gold. They will say that a horrible darkness whispered our names. Whispered our names until we closed our eyes and trembled with fear. Trembled until we became that darkness we feared.
They will say that this was a time of war in the name of terror, in the name of freedom, for the sake of peace. So there would be no more war in the name of. They will say this was a time of shrunken bellies, and refugees, and of blood being plagued by the ache of disease. And of islands floating away on rafts of human bodies.
They will say that this was a time of the bullet bite, the misogynist lyric and the anti-truth when we danced to the beat of our children's cracking skulls.
But let them also say that this was a time we fought against a self-inflicted genocide. That something truly human in us stood up to resist the Orwellian Jack boot. That finally in the rumblings throat of Ray Charles we heard what America could become. That in the bite of Mark Twain's wit, we finally got the punchline. Finally realized it was us. Finally realized that manifest destiny could no longer patch the human sized hole in our histories,
Let them say that this was when we said yes to each other again, yes again and again and again and again and again. And the pages of Pablo Neruda's versus resounded with peace for the coming twilights. Peace for the bridge, peace for the wine. Peace for the letters that seek us and rise in our blood, entwining the old song with land and loves. Peace for the city in the morning when bread rises. Peace for the ashes of our fallen. Peace for all the living. Peace for every water. Peace for every land.
Let them say that this was when the woman stepped forward declaring, I am that I am and we men began to break ourselves of the need to break women. Let them say—
REGIE GIBSON: Let them say that this—this was when we struggled against fists and fallacy. This was a time of lawyers abandoning courtrooms to plant wheat in Kenyon fields. That this was when we found truth. That truth found our tongues, and we were unafraid at this time to open our mouths and speak it.
Let them say that we were a people of faith in a time when faith was in crisis. That we were a people of love when it made no sense to love at all. We were a people of hope when it made no sense to hope at all. That we still believed that love could be as simple as the images our ancestors painted in caves and on rocks. Images that birthed our first human songs like water, and rain, and river, and flower, and sun, and moon, and star. Because even as the earth shook beneath our shoes we knew there were things about us that would never change.
REGIE GIBSON: Let them— Let them say that this was the time we desperately reached through the malignant maelstrom of electronic chaos, reached through the mad invocations of the soulless who profit from this poisonous pathology of our time. And we found others there. With our own eyes. Our own faces. Our own hands reaching back.
REV. JASON SHELTON: In 2009 my church choir recorded the song There's a River Flowing In my Soul by Rose Sanders, now known as Faya Rose Toure Rose is a prominent civil rights activist and attorney in Selma, Alabama.
When I connected with Rose in 2010 about securing permission for the recording she invited our choir to come to Selma to sing for the 45th anniversary of the 1965 voting rights march. She was the lead organizer. Our friends from Corinthian Baptist Church, a predominantly African American congregation in Nashville with whom we have been celebrating MLK Sunday for the past 20 years enthusiastically accepted our invitation for a joint choir bus trip to Selma.
We set out early on a March Saturday morning, making our first stop at the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. It was in that museum that the cracks in the walls between us began to open. When confronted with the iconic white and colored water fountains the stories of lived experience of racism and segregation began to flow like a river. No longer were these stories I had simply read or seen movies about, they were and are the stories of people I know, people I have come to love.
A woman from Corinthian Church told the story of how she, as a young pregnant woman, was forced to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman. She told of her pain, her embarrassment, her shame and her anger at God that such a thing could have happened. But in spite of her pain she reached out in love, finding the courage to affirm her own somebodyness, sharing her story.
On Sunday morning of that weekend we boarded the buses for the journey from Montgomery to Selma. Along the way we told stories of the March 45 years earlier. We remembered Viola Liuzzo and James Reed. We honored the life of Jimmy Lee Jackson whose death was the catalyst for the march. We sang and we prayed and we remembered.
But in the midst of it all we didn't notice the detour sign that would have directed us to the church where we were supposed to gather. Our bus eventually made its way to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to find it blockaded by police in the very same spot where National Guardsmen had beaten back that first group of protesters 45 years earlier. The bus got very quiet as the officers approached and asked our intentions.
We told them where we were headed. After a brief conference the officers informed us that they would be giving us an escort to the church. And two officers one white and one black fired up the lights and the sirens on their motorcycles and took us across that river into Selma like we really were somebody. In relief and glee at the way times have changed, our bus broke out into laughter and song.
Something happened that day as we marched and sang with over 30,000 souls who also claimed there somebodyness that afternoon. Love reached out and helped us write a new chapter in a story that has no end.
Now, the relationship between our two churches is not always easy. But those of us who were there for those momentous days know that we were changed simply by showing up. We were changed by the vulnerability we shared with one another, by the power of music and memory. We were changed by our love for one another. We were changed by that river that flowed into, among, and through us.
[SINGING THERE'S A RIVER FLOWING IN MY SOUL]
REV. JASON SHELTON: In my heart—
REV. JASON SHELTON: Flowing in my mind—
DR. MARK HICKS: I am also a lay member of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC. And was part of the group that journeyed to Ghana just eight months ago. Like TaQueena, the ancestors whispered my name also and called me to take that trip to West Africa.
It was during the darkness of the 12 hour plane ride over the Atlantic when it really sank in that I was connecting my distinctly African American identity with the cultural experience of my African ancestors. You see, as part of my preparation I took a DNA test to locate the ancestors who carried my family blood on the African continent. During that long plane ride it was if they were saying to me, hush child quiet your mind. It's time for you to understand that your story is in the context of our experience. It's time to dig deeper into the source of your optimism, your tenacity, courage, and creativity.
Our well of wisdom, it never runs dry. They were saying to me it's time that you figured out how our experience as Africans can be of use to you in your current life. There were many powerful realizations that shaped our trip. But what made each of them more special was the fact that we chose to study and reflect as African American Unitarian Universalists who chose and continue to choose this community, this faith, as a way to understand ourselves, our relationships, and the world in which we live.
It so often happens when you spend six months getting to a small group of people, we connected on many beautiful and different levels. We learned how to listen to each other's struggles and how to hold them as if they were precious gems. And we learned that we needed rituals. This became most obvious on last three days of our trip, when we traced the footsteps of Africans making their way to the ships that took them across the Middle Passage. As my sister to Taqueena just noted, we found ourselves standing literally on the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors. And in each of those dreadful places we found ourselves in need of a ritual to sustain us.
Some of you probably know the work of the famed cognitive neuroscientist, Donald Merlin. He reminds us that our dance and song are thought to be the first forms of symbolic expression. So it's no wonder that in that place, when our task was to bear witness to the struggle of our ancestors, we found great need to hold each other. And we needed to sing. It was as if our thoughts and emotions were placed in a blender and turned to stir. Our emotions, yeah, they were knowable, but they were also confusing. We were proud that our people could survive such cruelty and horrified, just horrified, that they were made to experience it. We felt bewildered, angry, resentful, and more times than we wanted to admit, we were just furious that this form of emotionally numbing systematic logic was wildly thought as practices of good and morally principled people.
It was in those moments that the theology of Unitarian Universalism expressed itself most clearly. And it manifested itself in the form of our hymn, Spirit of Life. The words, roots hold me close, wings set me free, took on a whole new meaning. For our feet were touching human carnage, while at the same time the optimism and our wings lifted our spirits. We knew that if we allowed our anger and deep disappointment to turn inward, it would result in pushing us into a downward spiral that would be very, very difficult to reverse. Those words, those sentiments, helped us to bear witness to the tenacity of our ancestors.
We sang because we needed a ritual to support us in this tender place of hopelessness. We sang because it was the only way to sit with our feelings of inadequacy, anger, shame, and yes, pride. We sang in order to bear witness to those who bore the long days and the long nights of suffering in that space. We sang because sometimes when your head and your heart feel like strangers to each other, the only thing left is to pull you forward inside the words of Spirit of Life.
(SINGING) Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of life, come to me. Come to me.
[SINGING WHEN I SEE THE WATER]
REV. JASON SHELTON: Let's meet together in silence for a bit.
And so the stories come down through time. They splash on the shore of the present moment. Stories from every tradition in every culture and every circle of people. Stories that are the powers of the waters to cleanse away all the clings to us. To sign our tears and outcry, especially when the shadow of death falls not just on our own streets, but on other nations of the world. Like Thailand and Ukraine, and especially now Iraq.
To quench a thirst that parches the spirit, to heal and soothe with mineral and heat to bring green to dry places. To surge with power, reminding us of the limits of our control. So now, oh love, flow like the waters. The waters from which and through which we were born. Cleanse our words and thoughts so that an attentive mindfulness washes away the habitual. Refresh us when we are thirsty. Go deep, for nothing that stays on the surface does much good. Soothe our bones, for we, too, need health and restoration. Green our dry places that we may remember that it is no sin to hunger for nourishment that is a real.
Flood us with questions about our limits and about our next step, that we may dare to ask them. Let your waves wash away the false names granted us by a fearful society, that we may hush, hush. And in that quiet receive our true and deepest names. And poor us now, like clear water, into the bowl of common life, that we may flow together for each other and with each other. Amen.
[SINGING HOLY WATERS]
DR. MARK HICKS: Sing that with us.
REV. JASON SHELTON: I pour this water as an anticipation of the tears that need to flow, not just from the guy in the ditch, but from the cleric and the assistant and the Samaritan, as well. To wash the path before us. Holy Waters, make us new.
TAQUIENA BOSTON: I pour water brought from the slave river, in remembrance of those ancestors who died, and those who survived the Middle Passage. May their sacrifice inspire all of us to bold love and justice for all.
DR. MARK HICKS: We learned how to listen and hear each other's struggles, and how to hold them as if they were precious jewels. And we learned that we needed rituals. There is healing in the water. Holy Water from Ghana, make us free.
REV. MEG RILEY: Here in Providence, Rhode Island, the epicenter of the slave trade here in the United States for many years, I pour this water in remembrance of those ancestors who profited from the slave trade and the slave economy. May our love now, in our cry and our work for justice, transform that sorrowful legacy into humanity and wholeness. Holy Waters, make us one.
REV. MEG RILEY: And now we move into the business of the day, into our busyness. Days full of important conversations and reflections, tasks and schedules. Days full of chance after chance to practice love, to practice giving and receiving love. Today may we noticed when love reaches out, and allow it to transform us. Today may we notice when the eyes of a stranger become those of a friend. May we choose to be silent when we might have spoken in an all-knowing voice, and see what we might learn.
May human suffering cause our hearts to break open, and not to steel themselves closed. May we allow ourselves to be saved and saving, redeemer and redeemed, lover and beloved. May the waters of love which have washed down upon us from places of mystery and depth we can't begin to name, bless us. And as we are blessed, may we offer that blessing, allowing the flow to continue unimpeded. Even as we extinguish the flame of this chalice, may the flame of love burn bright in ourselves, in our words, in our prayers. May love be our chalice. Amen and blessed be.
DR. MARK HICKS: Friends, we invite you to rise in body or in spirit, and join in our closing hymn, Blue Boat Home.
[SINGING BLUE BOAT HOME]
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Last updated on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.
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