Borrowed Words to Renew Our Spark and Fan Our Flame

(The following is transcript of the service offered by Ned Kratzer on November 20, 2016)

A Few Words on Transgender Day of Remembrance

Transgender Day of Remembrance is held annually on November 20th to memorialize those who have been killed due to anti-transgender hatred and prejudice. It started in 1998, when vigils were held to mourn the loss of Rita Hester, who was murdered in Boston.

The purpose of Transgender Day of Remembrance is to raise awareness of the violence committed against transgender and gender non-conforming people and to publicly honor and mourn the lives of those who might otherwise be forgotten. It is a day that allows us to stand up collectively in opposition to anti-transgender hatred and prejudice.

Perhaps now, more than before, we as UUs must reaffirm our commitment to our first two principles: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations”

One small light that I have to share on this Transgender Day of Remembrance comes from Judge William Leary III, serving the 2nd District Court of Minnesota. Just this past Monday, he issued a motion that struck down a ban on gender-affirming surgery (better known as sex-reassignment surgery) for anyone receiving health benefit coverage through Minnesota’s Medical Access program or through MinnesotaCare. The whole 35-page judgment is available on the ACLU’s website and certainly worth the read. I would like to share one small excerpt from it:

Any argument that the statute is justified because it “saves money” relies on illegitimate means to achieve that purpose. It deprives a small class of individuals, admittedly the subject of every conceivable form of discrimination, from medically necessary treatment for the assumed purpose of saving a de minimis portion of the state budget. To assume that such a distinction is other than “arbitrary and capricious” is to ignore the right to equal protection under the law.

Borrowed Words to Renew Our Spark and Fan Our Flame

When I agreed a few weeks ago to give this service, it didn’t occur to me then that it would be our first service after the election nor did it occur to me that the election would have had the outcome that it did. And while Thanksgiving is this week, a traditional service in that spirit felt to me like I would be leaving unsaid some important things.

In the past 11 days, I have often found myself thinking of our seven Principles and what they mean to me and how they must shape our actions both in the present and the future. But it was only a couple of days ago that I re-read the six sources that Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote. Of those, the second one struck me the most:

Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love

As such, since I have been having trouble coming up with words of my own, I have looked to the words and deeds of people in our present and our past. I have borrowed their words to share with you as any words I have tried to write myself seem insufficient. So I hope you will pardon me if this service seems like an episode of a TV show where it’s almost entirely comprised of clips from previous episodes.

The day after the election, a good friend of mine shared the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus; this is the famous poem inscribed on a bronze plaque hanging inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

My friend has since been attempting to stay positive himself and “Lift his lamp” to be a guiding light toward peace and justice. I have taken encouragement from his example and from others that I have seen acting in the same spirit, even if not using those words.

Another source from which I have taken inspiration and direction is some of the great civil rights leaders of the 50s and 60s. Only four days before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a great speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on the subject Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. Much of that speech still resonates strongly today. He opened by relating an oft-overlooked bit of a familiar story which I found particularly poignant:

I am sure that most of you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled "Rip Van Winkle." The one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept twenty years. But there is another point in that little story that is almost completely overlooked. It was the sign in the inn, from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep. When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George the Third of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington—and looking at the picture he was amazed—he was completely lost. He knew not who he was.

And this reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.

Many things throughout his speech should resonate strongly with anyone familiar with or sympathetic to the Unitarian Universalist Principles. He spoke of one of the great challenges facing mankind, saying:

First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

A little later he made some remarks specifically on racism. Remarks which I think clearly can and should be extended to all of the other bad “-isms” with which we still wrestle. Martin Luther King challenged humanity:

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, "Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out."

There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

That last bit, saying we must “realize that the time is always ripe to do right” is of particular importance. We all need to be more proactive in doing right, especially those of us with privilege that not all of our fellow humans have. Be encouraged to speak up for what is right, because we have come too far to allow our laws and our society to be dragged backward into a repeat of any of our shameful past actions.

At the end of his speech, Martin Luther King spoke a particularly resonant and memorable line, which is actually a condensing of a longer quote that dates back to a collection of early-to-mid 19th century sermons by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. Dr. King said:

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

As I look back at human history, both recent and ancient, I cannot help but agree with this sentiment. Though it is often slow going and is always hard work, while we sometimes stumble and slide (or are dragged) backwards, we are still moving forward in the long-term view. We must take caution not to become mired in misery and not let anger ferment into hatred.

Earlier I related a poem and my friend’s words which encourage us to be a light. However, there’s a flip-side to the light. The dark. In a recent blog post titled Be The Dark, John Beckett, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans shared a different perspective which spoke quite strongly to me too.

What if you don’t particularly feel like being the light? What if you’re still hurting, still afraid, still mad as hell? What if you’re just not a love and light kind of person?

Then be the dark.

Be the safety of the dark. We tend to think of the dark as a dangerous place, but for a wide variety of nocturnal creatures, daylight is dangerous and the dark is where they’re safe. You can’t see as well in the dark, but that also means it’s harder for you to be seen. Our mainstream culture mocks “hiding in the dark” but if you’re up against predators who are bigger, stronger, and more numerous than you, hiding in the dark is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Embrace the safety of the dark.

Be the restfulness of the dark. Sleep specialists tell us to put up thick curtains and make our bedrooms as dark as possible. Darkness blocks out distractions and signals the brain to make more melatonin, which enables sleep. Darkness helps us to rest, recover, and be ready to go at full speed when morning arrives. Embrace the restfulness of the dark.

Be the nurturing of the dark. Scatter seeds on top of the ground and not much will happen. Bury them in the darkness of the soil, though, and when the moisture and temperature are right they will germinate and begin to grow. Plant yourself in the lush darkness. Let it sooth your wounds. Let it nurture you until the conditions are right for you to sprout into the sunlight. Embrace the nurturing of the dark.

Be the glamour of the dark. Human night vision is a wonder of evolution, but it involves trade-offs. We gain the ability to see gross objects in low light, but we lose the ability to distinguish colors, fine details, and subtle movements. This works both ways. Darkness obscures our vision, but it also makes it easier for us to blend in with our surroundings and hide in plain sight. A glamour that might fool half the people in the daytime will fool most of them at night. If you’re particularly skilled at this form of magic, it may fool them all. Embrace the glamour of the dark.

Be the danger of the dark. Here we shift from nice safe pretty Nature metaphors to the reality of what must be done in the dark.

I originally used a different word here, but decided that “danger” was less likely to land me on a government watch list. To be clear, I think violence is almost always counterproductive, unless it’s in self-defense from an immediate threat.

In his book Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett wrote: “A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”

Being the danger of the dark is knowing in your soul that you’re scarier than anything that might come after you. This isn’t the testosterone-driven braggadocio of young men. Rather, it’s the quiet confidence that comes from the direct, first-hand experience of Gods, spirits, and magic. It’s knowing you have allies in the Otherworld – not servants you can call down at will, but mighty Powers with whom you are aligned and at whose side you will fight… and win, eventually if not immediately.

In looking for inspiration for this service, I found myself reading a sermon given by Scott Sammler-Michael to a UU congregation after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. In fact, it was his sermon that reminded me of Martin Luther King’s speech; a sermon cautioning UUs not to become complacent in the wake of Obama’s win. He opened his sermon with these words:

In his History of Liberal Theology, Dr. Gary Dorrien from Union Seminary places Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the same chapter as James Luther Adams, the great Unitarian Theologian from the twentieth Century. Adams and King shared a critical stance against Liberal Theology’s over-optimistic view of human nature, an optimism posing as a myth of inevitable progress, that humankind is moving onward and upward forever. King and Adams felt any doctrine of Human Nature that does not account for evil is foolish.

This becomes easy to understand when one realizes they both wrote their major works in the middle of the twentieth century, amid the horrors of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Vietnam. King and Adams remind us that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice only when we apply pressure to the forces of greed and destruction.

I too am a critic of our Liberal Religious tradition. Too often we have fallen prey to complacency. Too often we have taken our eyes off the prize. Too often we have allowed ourselves to believe we have finished when we have actually only reached the starting block.

I think these words may resonate across the past 8 years now more than ever. The results of the recent election may have actually served one good purpose. After the initial shock and anger wore off, many people have become more energized and more focused than they have been in years. It is now up to those of us who hold sympathetic views, those of us who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, those of us who seek justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, to use that energy and to ensure we don’t lose focus. Over the coming, days, weeks, months, and years, many of our brothers and sisters in humanity, particularly those fellow humans who are part of marginalized groups, will need our support. They will need our strength and they will need our voices; not instead of their own, not in place of their own, but in unison with their own. This means we need to listen to find out what people need and not assume we know the best way to help. We must now reaffirm our commitment to our principles which, taken as a whole, lead us to strive for true equality and justice for everyone.

So I say to you, be the light when you can and be the dark when that is needed, but never stop applying pressure to bend that moral arc toward justice.

I leave you now with one final quote. A quote from a man who had a great influence on me personally, though he died when I was only 11: Gene Roddenberry.

The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential, and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.

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