wizdUUm Blogs on Spirituality

Beatitudes and Black Lives Matter . . .

Union of Black Episcopalians Fourth Lenten Service

There is something about Episcopalian services, or black church, or good music. Once a decade or two I experience that je ne sais quoi that puts me over the edge. Perhaps it is just my own intensely spiritual experiences have been in the Catholic and Episcopal churches.

Sunday, I went to a Lenten service held by the Union of Black Episcopalians. This service was held in the late afternoon in Inglewood, CA, once morning duties had been completed. This was a gathering of black clergy and a black choir at one of my great favorite social justice priest and fellow alum, Francisco Garcia's, Holy Faith Church. The theme of this service was Beatitudes, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Jesus Movement. An intimate number of folks showed up to participate. There were enough though, that two Caribbean dignitaries slipped in in cognito enough to be acknowledged at the end of the service once their presence was realized.

The second hymn was Kumbya. I'm thinking okay, Kumbya. This is probably not going to be my campfire Kumbya. The rendition is incredible, and I'm good until the lyrics "somebody's in despair, somebody thinks that no one cares," and we repeat it and repeat it like in the YouTube link below. Not only did my neck hairs stand up, the star spangled banner can do that, but my hair stood on end, every last one on the top of my head. Unbidden tears just streamed tears down my face. The last time that happened as a spiritual experience was at All Saints Episcopal Church, sometime in the mid 1990s. (Tears streamed down my face as I walked to the communion rail at that church, more than once.)


There are too many hurting out there. I have much brokenness inside that rarely gets activated at that deep spiritual level unless it is in a church space I feel safe in and the music is not from a short list of acceptable Protestant composers, arrangers, or songwriters. I was an Episcopalian for a few years before I decided they were not liberal enough, theologically or politically, and moved further left to Unitarian Universalism. That does not mean I do not love still the churches and services. At the time, my heart and mind wrestled weekly with the Nicene Creed in the service. There is something to worshipping body and spirit, however.

One thing I will say is that the outpouring emotion during Kumbaya was not about my grief, truly a first in recent memory. Of course the service was Black Lives Matters, but any sadness in recent memory would automatically tap grief. This was not about my fears and anxieties. The outpouring of emotion was not about me at all, but tapped into that dark place of despair and losing one's way. I have been there, but I am on the other side now. The community holding the lament, and the sense of the community's faith was strong, based on way too much experience, and tradition. The community carries the broken until they can move forward. That is something that is missing in so many white churches. They want to skip the pain, the lament, to happy, or at least numb.

The rest of the service was amazing. We invoked the ancestors. The Episcopal Chorale was beautifully directed. There was a lot of music, contemplative, mournful and uplifting, covering different styles of the diaspora. We remembered the lives stolen. What upset me was except for a few, Travon, Tamir, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charlston Nine, I cannot keep track of the names, or the circumstances of so many dead. There are too.many.dead. This is a lament. No one person can keep track of so many names.

The collection plate was taken for the families of the man and woman, Marquintin Shandlin and Kisha Michael, who were shot dead by police just a few weeks ago right there in Inglewood. The couple was asleep or unconscious in the car. The policeman felt threatened. Between the two single parents out on a date, they left seven children. The church generously matched the collection.

The world is broken. For just a little while, in a loving strong cohesive faith community, can one feel whole again. Hopefully, those in pain will find some comfort. Perhaps there are those of us who found respite before we go back out with the foolishness we prayed for to think we can make a difference.

Things I Wish Other Religious People Knew About Paganism

I recently had the opportunity to attend an interfaith conference of religious educators.  Most of this group consisted of followers of Judaism and the largest denominations of Christianity.  They had only just begun to make connections with Buddhists and Muslims, and I supposed they would probably need time to get used to broadening the tent before being asked to encounter too much of the unfamiliar.  But sometimes things don’t work that way.

I was not, for example, only there as a Unitarian Universalist professional; I was there as a pagan, for which I was not sure they were prepared.  And yet, when I was asked to name two things of which I thought others might have “holy envy” about my religion, I wanted to tell them.  After a few people took their turn, I finally had an opportunity to share what my experience of paganism meant to me. 

It’s not a question I’m often asked.  I think people don’t believe there’s much more to say about it, or think they already know what it is and don’t need to hear my version.  But I’m a person of faith, too; passionate faith.  I wanted them all to know how much I was just like them.  Having realized I’d put it into words for the first time, I wanted to remember in case I was ever asked again.

So here they are, the things I wish other religious people knew:

Pagans can have personal relationships with that which others call “God.”

I had been a very devout Christian growing up, and a personal relationship with God - and later Jesus, when I was led to incorporate him into my idea of God - had been a real part of my formative years.   In fact, that relationship never ended.  It’s just that now, as I told them in truncation, it’s with “thousands” of emanations of God, instead of just one.

For me, the Divine exists in nuances; just as among any number of like human beings, each one has a completely unique personality and set of experiences.    Getting to know “the gods” is fulfilling, exciting, enrapturing, ecstatic. 

And I never get tired of it.  Each of the gods and goddesses, every spirit of land, tree, air, every angelic being, and the endless, numerous emanations of All That Is, is simply a new stream in which to taste the divine force of life, experience the sacred, touch and return to God. 

This is not an explanation of pagan cosmology, by the way; pagans are quite varied where that is concerned.  I just mean this to be the poetry of my experience in relationship to the Divine.

Pagans hold as sacred both the dark and the light, that which seems holy and that which seems profane, things of the body as well as things of the spirit. 

It is a long journey for anyone who tends, spiritually, toward asceticism, to get to a place where the messy, imperfect, aging, sexual body is just as sacred as the supposedly perfect, immaterial spirit.  But my love and celebration of the body is as much a part of my life as was once my shame of it, and of anything that involves pleasure for pleasure’s own sake.

 I do not reject the pleasurable to find the Divine in some internal desert, as if the Divine is not a part of the dirt and the earth, the sand and the wind and the mud and the rain, the blood and vestibules and muscles and nerves and hair and fur. 

I embrace the Divine in the ecstatic pleasure of just being alive, and all the wondrous experiences that make a life.  I am thankful for the uplifting of the body through its sacred ability to express the Divine in a material world.  God is not to be encountered only in retreat from pleasure; pleasure is often exactly where God is found, if you stop to notice it.

And the same can said for embracing those “negative” emotions of ours, those things out of control, that come from the shadow of the subconscious.  We know these destructive emotions serve a holy purpose.  It is appropriate that most tarot decks have a Tower card (Tower of Babel?), which people dread seeing, because it means what you’ve been building was either an illusion, or no longer serves you. 

Paganism is filled with many of us who still struggle with the idea that the best answer to everything is to be more than human, when being human is what we’re here to be.  But the point of working in earth-centered systems and of any system of magick, is that you are responsible for your own actions. 

We are not children, with a divine parent keeping us from doing something “wrong,”  or someone who knows better than us.  We must discern right and wrong according to our own conscience.  Despite all our protestations, we can actually be trusted to arrive at the “right” conclusions.  But there’s another critical piece to that:  Because we are sovereign over our choices and actions upon the world, we’re keenly aware of our responsibility for the consequences they can have.

In learning to claim my own power, to live without someone who has all the answers and can tell me what to do, to understand that divine Guidance is following my lead, and not the other way around, I am more whole, empowered, and grown up than I have ever been in my life. 

And that’s really it, the things I chose to share with those who were listening to me talk about paganism.  I have no idea how they received it, but actually being allowed to talk about it felt like re-joining a tribe.

I belong among people of faith, because I am a person of faith.  So do all pagans.  It would be nice if there were a seat at the table for us, but now and then I suppose we need to learn to invite ourselves. 

A Winter Solstice Ritual for 2014

Calling the Directions Spirit of the East Spirit of air: wind and sky, the breath of life. Spirit of possibilities with each morning sunrise. Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the South Spirit of fire: heat and sunlight, electricity energizing life. Spirit of passion as we seek justice Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the West Spirit of water: quenching, drenching, and dew, the fundamental molecule of life. Spirit of perseverance in the face of difficulties. Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the North Spirit of Earth: dust and mountains, in which life teams, and from which life springs Spirit of becoming, that each moment we may start again Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Introduction On this eve of Winter Solstice, this longest night, let us acknowledge that the time has come for the Earth to rest. Just as the earth needs to rest, fields lay fallow, and seeds need the richness of the earth to seep in giving sustenance in preparation for germination, so we need a time to rest and restore. Just as our body needs sleep to rejuvenate us in daily cycles, the earth gets the rest it needs in the yearly revolution around the sun. The earth is furthest from the sun in our hemisphere, and low in the sky. Although Northern European winter is not evident in Southern California with it's nearly perpetual sun, vegetable gardens lie fallow, or freshly seeded in anticipation of the coming spring. Thus the nights have grown longer and longer until tonight, the longest night, and then the days will instead begin to lengthen.

We acknowledge pain and suffering in the world, especially the killing of innocent black men as a result of systematic racism, and the two policemen of color murdered yesterday. In this world these and other tragedies are traditionally associated with darkness. Instead of perpetuating the false association, we pray that the darkness bring healing and restoration to our broken world. May the new sun illuminate the interconnected web of life that more and more are beginning to realize.

StoryThe Rebirth of the Sun" by Starhawk

Giving Thanks Let us give thanks for that and whom we are grateful.

Prayers Let us pray for those in need.

Making Merry Feasting and Pagan Carols from Moon Path CUUPS

Dismissing the Directions Spirit of the East Spirit of air: wind and sky, the breath of life. Spirit of possibilities with each morning sunrise. Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the South Spirit of fire: heat and sunlight, electricity energizing life. Spirit of passion as we seek justice Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the West Spirit of water: quenching, drenching, and dew, the fundamental molecule of life. Spirit of perseverance in the face of difficulties. Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the North Spirit of Earth: dust and mountains, in which life teams, and from which life springs Spirit of becoming, that each moment we may start again Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless us as we part from one another.

Our ritual is ended. Merry meet and merry part until we meet again. Image: Victor Hanacek Directions and Introduction: Kathleen McGregor

Not a Believer

My father said something today that hurt deeply, despite the fact that it was meant to be a compliment. He said "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I know this was meant to be reassuring, both to my mother and himself.  Ever since I got involved in Unitarian Universalism they've been worried that their daughter has joined a cult. They've waited patiently for me to get over this phase, like my vegetarianism in college and a brief flirtation with evangelical Christianity in high school. (They don't know about the even briefer look into Satanism that followed.) As I did not simply get over it and have gotten even more deeply involved, they started asking questions about what Unitarian Universalism is. This is hard enough to explain under the best of circumstances. It is all the more difficult through the barrier of language. After trying quite a while to reassure my father that UU members are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves and that there was in fact a great deal of theological diversity within UU, my father's face lit up in relief. "Oh, I see," he said. "You're not really a religion; you're more like a social club." "No, no!" I protested.  But ultimately it was easier to let him believe we are a social club than to have him worry about my being brain-washed.

That was over two years ago. Since then it's been an uneasy truce, where every "strange" thing I do, like giving up pork and beef, is met with concern. This time around, my announcement that I was going to church on Sunday renewed their fears. I could hear them thinking, "Are you so deeply involved that you can't skip this thing for a week?" The truth is that I can easily skip church for a week, or weeks.  I just didn't want to. So another round of probing questions ensued.  "What do you really believe?"  "What do UUs think of non-Unitarian Universalists?" "Do you talk with people of other faiths?" After asking several questions along these lines my father proclaimed, to reassure himself and my mother, that "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I indignantly wanted to protest. But then I thought, once again, it would just be easier to let this be the diagnosis.

The truth is, the reason why my father's statement bothers me so is because part of me is afraid that it's true. And unlike my parents, I don't want it to be true. I want to be a believer. I think I am a believer. And yet I know there is almost always some part of me that holds back, analyzing the situation instead of simply living it. There is always some part of me that is skeptical instead of faithful.

Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible. Certainly not. But there is a difference between faith and reason. Thinking about God is not the same as having faith in God. Researching religion is not the same as believing. The delicate balance that I want to maintain is to be a believer, a person of faith, but not so much so that one eschews reason and doubt.  The delicate balance between heart and mind.  Faith based only on the heart and not mind is either maudlin or zealous, or both. And yet faith based only on the mind and not the heart is... not faith.

Sometimes, when a UU sermon sounds more like a college lecture than a sermon, or when our rituals don't ring true, I think we are maybe just playing at this religion thing, that we are going through the motions of faith for whatever reason but don't feel it. Certainly in some UU congregations, my father's description would be fine with them. I want more than that. I don't want to just study religion; I want to live faith. I want to feel every day that same feeling I've briefly had at moments - of being in relationship with God and with existence, and feeling immense gratitude and love.  I want to be a believer.

Living Spirituality

For our interfaith dialogue discussion topic last night, the question was "How does your spirituality affect your life?"

That immediately begs the question, what is spirituality?  Is it the beliefs of our religions?  Is it the ritual/spiritual practice?  Is it simply that mystical feeling of connectedness with the divine?  Often times, I hear people use "spirituality" to refer to the stuff they like and "religion" to mean the stuff they don't like.  But even if we reject that simplistic dichotomy, which I do, it seems there is a real difference between "religion" and "spirituality."

How does your spirituality affect your life?

As a Unitarian Universalist, the most obvious way that spirituality affects my life is in the commitment to social justice.  Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or to put it in Christian terms as did William Ellery Channing, believing that we are made in the likeness or image of God, it means that every person must be respected.  But more than just freedom from oppression, our theology calls for society to provide a nurturing environment for everyone. If we, like God, have the capacity to discern the good, the right, the just, then every person has potential to blossom to his or her full capacity if given the right environment. To withhold that nurturance would be to limit Godliness.

Another way in which spirituality affects my life is in the practice of reflection upon our actions. Spirituality for me means the practice of reflection, action, reflection, action. Praxis. And this is particularly important for those of us who work for justice because we are so often interacting with people who are opposed to us.  It would be easy to slip into an "us versus them" mentality, to forget what you are for and be merely about what you are against. Spiritual reflection helps keep us in the "for."  It reminds us that whatever we choose to do, how we get to the goal is as important as getting there - maintaining right relations.

I've heard some people say that they really like the openness of Unitarian Universalism, but do not see the need to join any type of (semi)organized religion. For me, being part of a community is an integral part of spirituality, as is the spiritual practice of praxis that communal UU encourages.  Spirituality is not the beliefs or rituals, or even the "feeling of connectedness;" it is living compassion, purpose and meaning.   One doesn't have to be a UU to live spiritually, of course, but being part of the UU community does affect my life, every day.

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