Thank you all for inviting me back here—it is always a pleasure to stand here and look out over this congregation. And to be here on the longest day of the year is even sweeter. And it’s Father’s Day, too. Let’s take a moment and honor the daddies—those in the room and those in our hearts. (applaud)
A church—a place for weaving community and unlocking the keys to equity and justice, for honoring the Divine however you reckon that—is sometimes called a sanctuary. But Emanuel AME in Charleston was not a sanctuary on Wednesday when a gunman rose and took the lives of 9 people, leaving a little girl to bear witness, to “tell the story.”
How do we reckon with that?
It was my pleasure and my privilege to sit in a pew at St James AME in downtown Asheville on Friday and listen to the heart-opening words of their pastor—who grew up in Mother Emanuel and was leaving after the service to go to Charleston. There was so much grief there—and hope and love and genuine goodness. I sat with clergy-folk from the UUCA and we spoke quietly of another shooting and the effect it had had on them. How do we hold each other in that kind of triggering—for most of you hold the memory of 2008, of a shooting over the mountains in Knoxville TN at the Tennessee Valley UU Church.
I invite you now to reach out to the people on either side of you—by either taking a hand or catching an eye—and remember how precious the bond of community is. And to acknowledge that church is also a place that requires us to be thoughtful and courageous…and to exercise the beauty of compassion and unrelenting love. We are called now to redefine our places of worship where transformation is also on the agenda—and change for systems that are so completely broken.
I’ve stood here and talked about Tower Time and the celebration of various holy days on the ancient calendar called the Wheel of the Year. We’ve played around with the sanctity of candy corn and some of you may remember the Winter Solstice celebration where we rearranged all the pews and started out in the dark.
So, it’s a big day today, literally. Midsummer is often celebrated in my community with picnics and bonfires, and we sometimes stay up the night before, holding vigil for the shortest night. I wanted to engage you all today in a reverie of summertime, a remembrance of summer’s past and to beg you to enjoy the richness of life all around you, even if your obligations require you to continue your work on behalf of justice and peace and equality. I had planned to honor the fruits of your labor as advocates and allies, as kith and as kindred. But life intervened this week and there may be better things for us to discuss, to engage.
In English folklore, there is a great battle that takes place on each of the Solstices. The Oak King and the Holly King battle for primacy. In “The White Goddess,” by Robert Graves, the Holly King represents one half of the year, while the other is personified by his adversary the Oak King: the two battle endlessly as the seasons turn. At this time of year, blessed Midsummer, the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. The Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the Autumn Equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King’s favor and his prowess peaks at the Winter Solstice and afterwards declines, and the cycle continues. It’s a convenient mythological explanation for the cycling seasons and also gives tribute the old warrior cultures of Old Europe, a culture from which many of us descend. This twisting, fighting metaphor for something so naturally slow and evolving seems harsh to our modern sentiments. But our own internal struggles with what we should do and what we want to do are mirrored in this myth. And the consideration of our internal selves with the limitations set on us by the hierarchical and toxic systems in which we live our lives brought me to a thoughtful place.
Last week, a woman who has self-identified as a Black woman was “outed” by her parents, who say she is, in fact, white. A firestorm ensued in the media, and in parts of my community we are also trying to find loving and thoughtful responses to the trans community, made manifest again in mainstream media by the very public transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn.
What does it mean to feel you are something on the inside that is not reflected by your outward appearance? And because I tend to see issues like this in mythological or metaphorical terms, I began to think about the people I know—myself included—who choose to hold back all that their insides dictate because it would be at the least unacceptable and at the worst, dangerous.
In NC we are dealing with elected officials who are relentless in their schedule of rolling back generally accepted freedoms, demolishing the social safety net, marginalizing citizens’ input and agency. When we demand change, we are told that our only recourse is to not vote for those people again. But many of us didn’t vote for them this time, did we? And due to the fine-tuned redistricting that has come to be called gerrymandering, we may be looking at a generation of restructuring that will have us living in a state very different than the one we knew only a decade ago.
So what are we to do?
We read the news on the migrant situation nearly world-wide and watch with horror as sinking boats filled with refugees drag across the Mediterranean or the China Sea. With no clear path to immigration in our own country, we can only watch with disgust as politicians in both parties use the lives of ordinary people to further their own political agenda.
So what are we to do?
There are fires in Alaska. The black rhino is being hunted to extinction because its horn is thought to cure a hangover. California is out of water—though water is still being used there for hydraulic fracturing. Texas wishes it could give California all the excess water it has been given. The systems of this life-sustaining planet we call home are morphing, changing into places where life as we have known it may no longer be possible. Even the Pope has released an encyclical on the condition of the environment.
So what are we to do?
That font of wisdom and useless information Facebook suggested this to me earlier this week. Say how you feel, leave the job you hate, find your passion, love with every ounce of your bones, stand up for things that matter, don’t settle, don’t apologize for who you are. Be brave.
Take a deep breath, friends. Ground yourself into the bosom of the Earth. Now, from this place of strength and relative safety, open your heart to those in need of your goodness, your strength. Speak gentle words to those who need them….and kick the rear-ends of those that need that, too.
The world is aswirl with chaos energy right now. We always have choices then but the two obvious ones are ground and hold–or ride the chaos. What we do tends to be determined on how strong we feel at the moment. Going to ground like a little furry critter is always a good option. Engaging the Powers—speaking truth to power—is the work of determined and often desperate souls for whom justice seems an indistinct possibility.
In times of grief and fear and fury, it has sometimes a comfort to sit with our own past and with those of our forebears, to remember what life was like when you grew all the food you ate, had no control over how many children you would bear, were ruled by custom and culture that considered those hard lives to be of less value that the lives of their “betters.” We find blessing in such communion, as our reflections on their lives bring us wisdom, strength, vision.
One thing I have learned in my life is that nothing is a binary. It is neither the one thing nor the other. You can stand in solidarity while lamenting the burning of the city, the culling of the innocent. You can hold many emotions at the same time or sequentially–fear, fury, grief, longing. You can feel traumatized and triumphant. This is complicated, this time of change and growth in which we are engaged. You are free to feel what you need to feel as you sort through the events in our world. And if you are overwhelmed with a desire to help, look at your community and see if there are people who are hungry–because they are there. Look to see if there is land that needs protection–because there is. You can help. You can feel. It’s ok to do both.
If you are overwhelmed with a desire to help, look at your community and see if there are people who are hungry–because they are there. Look to see if there is land that needs protection–because there is. You can help. You can feel. It’s ok to do both. Think of your friends and colleagues who have been triggered by recent events–check in with them. Check in with the people who are always strong but now are quiet. Send them your good love and attention.
In these times, we are the seeds that are awakened by fire. It’s up to us to go into the forest that is Baltimore and Ferguson and Pine Ridge and Oceana—and Charleston– and bring the green of renewed and renewing life. The people on the ground in all these places have been told to be patient, let the system work, calm down, wait. What is happening now is that the real people who live real lives in these real places have reached the perfect point of despair. Some of us have been there, too–and it would have taken only that rush of clear destructive energy to bring the change. Certainly there are other ways to achieve change–but they are intentionally hobbled by so many things so deeply ingrained in our culture. It is worth it–thinking this through, being articulate. Because it won’t stop in Baltimore, or Ferguson, or Charleston.
Sometimes what we are doing is kindling past the apathy of culture and life. Sometimes we are lighting signal fires to let the next generation know that we care about the world we are leaving to them. Sometimes fire is light, sometimes it is heat, always–in its wake–there is renewed life. I always take Nature as my teacher and I think about forest fires–the terror, the destruction, and the aftermath of livid green. It is all a cycle, you know. The Great Cycle. Creation/Destruction/Creation.
We stand at a liminal time– as the Oak and the Holly King do—between the rising energy of the longest day and the falling energy of the months to come. Thresholds are important for us culturally, of course, but for those of us who truck with the Unseen, there is power and melancholy in these times of shifting space and time. Hold the ragged edges of your hearts together today. Pull the tatters of your soul into some semblance of your sacred garment. Straighten your back, stand tall, look forward. All is exactly as it seems, and yet…everything is a shadow. Ground deeply, breathe into your belly. Seize the power of the moment and remember we are strong because we stand together down the generations, across the veils, in harmony with the Earth.
That’s all for today. Except this–
Fear not. Fear not. These are the times we are made for.