by Rev. David A. Miller.

Jul. 24, 2016.

When Sarah Jebian contacted me about this service and let me know there was a quartet singing, and wanted some direction about the theme of the service, I have to admit, being on vacation at the time, I wasn’t too interested in thinking that deeply about it. I thought: quartet, harmony, sure, that sounds good, I will preach about, What is Harmony? It came to me pretty quickly and in a world with so many different voices, I thought, this is something I can always talk about.

One of the reasons this seemed to fit was I was just coming home from [Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)] General Assembly [GA]. It was a General Assembly that in some ways was like no other I have ever experienced. Two of the reasons I love General Assembly are the worship and the music. Both are usually fantastic. So many gifted people coming together. Among other gifts that are shared, people come together to join in the GA choir, something like 180 voices that participate in worship. It is amazing and sounds fabulous, all those voices blending together in wonderful harmony, demonstrating what kind of centering and meaning humans can bring through the gift of music and the connection to the sacred inner voice in us all.

As I thought about GA further, harmony was a great metaphor for describing my feelings because I noticed incredible harmony, and I had an experience of also being out of tune. Not unlike what seems to be happening in much of the rest of the world, I think Unitarian Universalism is struggling some to understand its place in the 21st Century. One of the things that has stayed with me from this GA was my involvement and presentation with the task force that is looking into evolving the current concept of membership in our congregations and with our association, to a model of being in covenantal relationship with each other. This would mean basically that instead of being members of, we would be in covenant with? This is just in the exploratory stages, and you will hear more about this in the coming year, but it could be something that would bring about some culture change from a 20th Century model to a 21st Century model.

Another thing that stuck with me was that for years, Unitarian Universalism has been inviting people from traditionally marginalized communities of color to come in from the margins closer to the center. This GA felt the closest to me to actually having that happen. With that said, I think where I found elements of some disharmony is when those from the margins have more influence, it does shift the culture. And cultures have a way of getting pretty fixed in their own comfort; so this is some place else where we seemed to be trying to find our harmony.

Although there was some out-of-tuneness at GA, it was also an amazing place to be just 10 days after the shooting in Orlando – to be in a place of such support and love. However, since the end of GA, things have seemed to swing even further toward the tragic and surreal. Baton Rouge, Dallas, Nice, and while I was writing this, Munich, among other places. Tragic and horrible violence. As I said in one of my congregational blog posts, it seems like we don’t have time to absorb and process one tragedy before another occurs. And then juxtapose this with one of the most, if not perhaps the most, surreal and frightening presidential campaigns in history, it has made me wonder about whether or not we are now traveling in uncharted waters.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been other generations that have faced difficult times. I preached about that last year around Thanksgiving where I said, “I fear we have short memories in this country. There are other generations that have faced times where giving thanks may have felt like a hard thing to do. I wasn’t alive when most of the world was at war in November of 1940 but I can’t imagine that the world felt safe and comfortable. I can’t imagine how it felt at Thanksgiving in the early 1950s when McCarthyism took anti-communist rhetoric to a fever pitch and fear of spies, traitors and nuclear war permeated our national consciousness. And I am guessing, with the new media of the time, radio in the ’40s and television in the ’50s, that people then also thought that they were inundated with the news more than ever before.” I did say this last Thanksgiving, but with the events of the last couple of months and looking where we are in our political process, in the country and in the world, I feel like to some, especially those who haven’t lived through such turbulent times, this may indeed feel like uncharted waters when the old rules of harmony or the perceptions or superficial appearances of harmony are being left behind.To others, of course, it is reminiscent of other times. Either way, it does feel like an important moment in history, and here are some of the reasons why:

  • There is a continuing evolution and breakdown of the institutional mainline religious traditions as they have been known. In other words, the evolution of the 1950s model to a model of questioning how to meet religious and spiritual needs in the 21st Century.
  • We have entered a time of the final gasp of the traditional, straight, white-male-Christian, Eurocentric, dominant, normative narrative of this country, and the reaction to that has given rise to the Tea Party, theocratic conservatism and increased nationalism.
  • Although living in a statistically safe time in the history of the country and the planet, there has been an increase in high-profile violence. And with the availability of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it can feel totally unsettling and disconcerting.
  • The use and availability of social media to spotlight and highlight, also has given rise to the ability to mobilize for and react to issues of oppression that challenge systems of power more immediately and more widely than in the past.
  • We also are living in an evolved cultural landscape where victims of oppression are rightfully no longer satisfied with marginal victories.
  • And these threats to the status quo threaten other structures of power with meaningful movements of change, like taking on the issue of gun violence and the traditional grip on politics by the NRA.
  • The increased participation and leadership of younger generations of people of color and people from traditionally marginalized communities in progressive movements of change that challenge the Baby Boom, liberal norms and culture, as demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter Movement.
  • The apparent current and coming breakdown of the two-party system.
  • And, the threats of war, terrorism and violence that don’t follow historic patterns, rules and norms.

So, what do you do in moments of history like these? I have to admit, I don’t think there is a clear roadmap. I think what we need is some combination of flexibility, creativity and familiar centering.

I feel like most of our congregations, including this one, are designed for what was happening for the last 10 years, not for what may happen in the next. I am meeting with the worship committee next week and here are a couple of questions I have requested we discuss:

  • How do we view worship needs in the current, unsettled cultural climate?
  • Are there worship experiences we can add to the schedule that will provide opportunities for connection, spiritual fulfillment and grounding to address these needs, including a discussion of vigils and other urgent experiences called for by unforeseen events?

Almost every minister I have spoken with is struggling with how many candlelight vigils they can hold in the wake of so much suffering? And, how to provide places for connection and meaning in times of such relentless challenge? It will take some combination of flexibility, creativity and familiar centering. If the rules we know are being challenged, and our systems are designed based on those rules, the time has arrived for us to be flexible, nimble and creative when designing programs, worship experiences and opportunities for connection and hope. We must be creative, understanding that these times call for us not to do things as we have always done them. Creativity, innovation and the willingness to risk and learn are the keys to new systems, new solutions and, to use the metaphor, new music for the choir, music that allows for more voices, different voices, to join in singing, to join together to find harmony.

It also may help to utilize the familiar. Everything can’t be new and innovative. There must be things that remind us of who we are at our core and that call us, because they have always been part of what calls us, to our best selves. Things that provide a foundation of comfort. One example that provides me comfort is a quote from Julian of Norwich from the 14th Century who said, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Which in my interpretations says, yes, we will have troubles, but if you have faith in the power of love and hope in the long term thread of humanity, all things will be well.

Or the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle, which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Or the sustenance that comes with the simple act of lighting our chalice or coming together for a potluck.

There are so many things we could all do to help us feel better, to help us feel like we are doing something to make a difference in this hurting world. The hungry need to be fed. Our trans-siblings are fighting for dignity and basic human kindness. With so many needs, with so much discomfort, I could see many possible reactions, but three stand out for me as highly possible, yet maybe not the most desirable.

  • First, we could try to do everything.
  • Second, we could react in righteous anger, feeling like our values, and our sense of harmony is under attack and attack back, or
  • Third, we could just retreat, retreat in fear or, as I talked about in June, retreat to the cocoon of UUCF and the relative quiet of Fairfax County.

I go to each one of these places on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. But here is what I am hoping for this year: I am going to relish my role of supporting the congregation in its efforts, but I am personally hoping to make a truly meaningful difference in one specific thing, the disease of gun violence and the grip of the National Rifle Association on the political process. As I have said, I feel a special responsibility to this being the closest UU minister to the headquarters of the NRA.

And here is what else I am hoping for, I am hoping that we don’t forget to experience joy – the joy of laughter, the joy when we dedicate the life of a child, the joy that comes from sitting together at a really long and really hot Washington National’s game, the joy that comes when we gather together in community. I am going to hope that we ground ourselves in things that help us to remember that our human connection is vital to our shared survival. I am going to hope that our efforts to strive for justice come with listening to the stories of others. I am going to hope that we enter all of this with an open heart being willing to grow and change. And I am hoping that we never forget that love is a verb. I am more than hoping this, I am pledging this, I see no other option, I know no other way. We are all in the choir of hope, let all hear us sing.