We Are the Resistance

Rev. Meredith Garmon

We Unitarian Universalists are typically proud of our resistance. Our congregations often have an air of social rebellion. We like to think of ourselves as standing against the status quo and the powers that be. When we relate our denomination’s history, we highlight our activists, slavery abolitionists, women’s suffragists, marchers at Selma, anti-Vietnam war protesters. We cite with pride our congregations’ early open-ness to same-sex marriage and our welcoming of LGBT ministers into our pulpits. What a bunch of righteous, resistant, radicals we are!

The truth, of course, is that UU history, as most history, is a mixed bag. For most of that history, Unitarians have been the denomination of choice for the economic elite. We are known for making the least demands on our members. We don’t tell you what to think, don’t tell you what to do. For 200 years now, anyone wanting a church that would leave them alone has found the Unitarians the place to be. Nor did the Universalists, when Universalism was a distinct denomination, have much inclination to rouse rabble. Our abolitionists, women’s suffragists, etc., were a small minority of our membership, and their activities tended to not have the support of the congregations.

In the early 20th-century, Rev. John Haynes Holmes courageously stood against World War I, but he was roundly denounced by pretty much all the rest of the Unitarian establishment. Neither the Unitarians nor the Universalists were very oriented toward resisting war and injustice.

The change began with the Humanist movement that began burgeoning within Unitarianism and, to a lesser extent, within Universalism, in the 1920s and 30s. Humanism dropped God out of the picture altogether, and, to do that, it emphasized the scientific method. Religious concepts were redefined in human terms.

By the middle of the 20th century, in most Unitarian and Universalist congregations, the crosses had been taken down, the communion silver stashed in a remote basement closet -- and we were seeing ourselves as resistors, not just a lower-demand version of the prevailing Christianity.

All around us, the 1950s were a time when business interests combined with mainstream Protestantism to emphasize pro-business values and fight the Cold War. Prayer breakfasts swept the country, bringing together business leaders and church leaders to praise God and denounce communism. The 1950s so thoroughly conflated patriotism and religion that the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 – because the enemy of both the business establishment and the religious establishment was Godless communism.

1959, the year that we Unitarian Universalists of White Plains moved into our current building, was the year church attendance in the US hit its peak. Just about everybody was in church on Sunday morning, and what was preached there was a theology of God, country, and General Motors -- albeit rather less so in Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

In this context, Unitarians and Universalists started becoming counter-cultural. When a plan was advanced to let kids out of public schools on Wednesday afternoon so they could attend religious instruction in their churches, it was a coalition of Unitarians and Jews that resisted.

The advertisements that Unitarians began running in the papers in the 50s and 60s had a distinctly resistant feel to them: For example:
"What's your idea of true religion? Unitarianism is a way of life, life of vigorous thought, constructive activity, of generous service -- not a religion of inherited creeds, revered saints, or holy books. Unitarianism is not an easy religion. It demands that people think out their beliefs for themselves, and then live those beliefs. The stress is placed more upon living this life nobly and effectively than on the preparation for an after-existence. If you have given up 'old time' religion, Unitarianism has the answer for you.”
Another advertisement proclaimed:
“Freedom is our Method
Reason is our Guide
Fellowship is our Spirit
Character is our Test
Service is our Goal.”
What kind of people, in the midst of the prevailing buttoned-down “God and country” anti-communism, would be attracted by ads like that? Clearly Unitarians weren’t the establishment any more. We weren’t even the slightly-more-skeptical wing of the respectable elite. We had evolved into centers of resistance to the prevailing conventional opinion.

Yes, the Unitarians and the Universalists go back 200 years in this country – and 400 years in Europe – but we were formed into what we are today during this phase of massive cultural conformity. The Humanism that we moved into in the 30s put us in a position of cultural resistance in the 50s. Our Humanism shifted us from insiders to outsiders. And that paved the way for the further cultural resistance that showed up in large-scale UU involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which set us up to be ready to resist a range of injustices.

We still have the vestiges of our history of being the elite and the comfortable. Overcoming our lingering tendency toward complacency is one of our challenges. A second challenge arises from a broader and more recent social trend: people that want to resist mainstream or conservative religion feel a lot more free to just stay home. For example, in the 1960s and up until his untimely death in 1971, the brilliant activist, Whitney Young, Executive Director of the Urban League, worshiped on Sunday morning at Community Unitarian Church at White Plains. More and more activists and movement leaders today, however, belong to no faith community.

We must rise to these challenges. Our country needs the distinctive voice of Unitarian Universalism -- joyfully both spiritual and religious, while also proudly standing in resistance to social injustice and environmental destruction. It is our job to be the resistors. That’s what Unitarian Universalists do. We haven't always. We do now.

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(For more detail on this angle on Unitarian and Universalist history, see Rev. Tom Schade's blogpost, "Humanism in Context.")


Winter Solstice: Birthing the Light

Rev. Peggy Clarke

This is the time of the planet’s turning, the beginning of the return of the light. But it’s not going to happen quickly. It’ll be 6 months before we experience light in full form. We are only half way there. But, we are at the moment of turning.

I have hope for the turning. I am of the belief that we are in a Great Turning, an epic moment in human history. We can see the last vestiges of a culture dying, an industrial growth society that’s reached the end of its effectiveness. Twelve thousand years ago, there was an agrarian revolution in which people domesticated animals and plants. They learned that hunting and gathering could be shifted if they planted their own food and raised animals near their homes. This shift lead to a massive alteration of human culture, allowing us to let go of nomadism and settle into homes and communities, thereby increasing life span and human culture.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a similarly definitive transformation. Things formally made by hand in the home were now made by machine in a factory. Human lives were never the same again. There’s a dramatic increase in population, tremendous growth of towns and cities, in education, transportation and massive immigration and exchange of cultures.

And we are, again, at a moment of turning. Earth can no longer sustain our appetite for consumption. The industrial growth economy that requires demonstrable growth in every calendar quarter, demands an incessant and unceasing stripping of natural resources from Earth. The transition we’re seeing is from an unsustainable economy to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.

In the early stages of major transitions, the initial activity might seem to exist only at the fringes. Yet when their time comes, ideas and behaviors become contagious: the more people bear witness to their inspiring perspectives, the more these perspectives catch on. At a certain point, the balance tips and we reach critical mass. Viewpoints and practices that were once on the margins become the new mainstream. [Joanna Macy. Any of her books will describe this, and her web site is filled with these ideas. See: www.joannamacy.net.]
“In the story of the Great Turning, what’s catching on is commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so. Social and technical innovations converge, mobilizing people’s energy, attention, creativity, and determination…” [Joanna Macy, http://www.activehope.info/great-turning.html. 2016 Dec 16]
Major transitions usually start on the margins until they make their way into mainstream culture. We begin to see people organizing to move society toward a shared vision. Language that was used only by a select few is heard in everyday conversation. Average people begin to push for a new vision as norms shift and expectations for ideas that seemed far-fetched are becoming realized. Paul Hawken writes:
“I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over one – and maybe even two — million organizations working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.” [Blessed Unrest]
The culture we’ve grown used to is ending. We can no longer consume resources the way we’ve become accustomed. We can’t pretend that garbage disappears after a truck picks it up or that driving tens of thousands of miles a year has no discernible effect on our planetary systems. And as this reality moves from the fringes into mainstream awareness, many people, millions of people, are grasping at whatever they can reach to keep it alive. Slogans like Make America Great Again, reach backwards to a fictional past as a last gasp of a dying culture.

This is the path we follow. When the Industrial Revolution was taking hold in this nation, elections were rampant with anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric. In 1856, 75% of the House of Representatives was made up of what were called Nativists, people who today we’d call White Nationalists. In 1860, the Civil War broke out. Culture was transformed. There was massive change in the Industrial Revolution. Culture was altered permanently. People were terrified. They tried to hold on to a world they knew they were losing. And then, there was a Great Turning.

Earth is turning again. We are in the last days of darkness, the days when Loki is aiming his poison at the light, hoping to burn out the sun. Frigga can see what’s coming, and in her grief, she will birth the light once again.

I suspect, in this moment of Turning, we all have the potential to be Frigga and Loki and Baldur and Hodor. Identifying with Baldur is easy. He’s the bright light who falls victim to someone else’s misdeeds. Loki wants trouble. He doesn’t like the way things are going and wants them to stop. He wants the world to stop turning, for things to stop changing, so he lies and manipulates to get what he wants. Hodor isn’t paying enough attention to know what’s happening. He thinks Loki is teaching him something about spears and doesn’t realize the mistletoe is poison or that hitting his brother will have fatal consequences. He goes along with the plan, mindlessly. And then, there’s Frigga. She can see it all. She knows her son, the Sun, will be killed. She grieves his passing as any mother would. And then she uses all her power to transform that loss into a new birth. She creates life where there was death.

This is our call; this is our task. We are here to birth the light. We are here to bring the sun back, to birth the new world.


The Fear Problem

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Gut often leads us in irrational directions. For example, people who are told a certain device will save 150 lives are not terribly impressed. Oddly, they are more impressed if they learn the device will save 98% of 150 lives. Why that’s almost all of them! For Gut, it feels like a nearly full cup. You could even say it saves 85% of 150 lives, and still get a more favorable reaction than if you say it saves 150 lives. See what Head is up against?

Suppose I tell you that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death of children. Is that good news? Oh, my god, that’s awful, says Gut. But wait a minute. That means every other cause of death is less. Terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, school shootings, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, pesticides – sharks – all the other fears of our time: much, much less. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, polio, cholera, small pox – these things used to kill huge numbers of children, and now they've been reduced so much that motor vehicle accidents are left as the number one cause of death. That’s great news.

Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birthdates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear. (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 293)

In the mid-1990s there were stories about silicone breast implants leading to connective-tissue disease. Out of about 100 million women, 1 percent had breast implants, and about 1 percent get connective-tissue disease, so by coincidence alone, that’s 10,000 women with both. The FDA said there was no evidence of a correlation between implants and disease. Activist groups were outraged. “We are the evidence,” became their slogan.

But if we put the many-more-thousands-of-women who had connective-tissue disease without breast implants together with the many-more-thousands-of-women who had breast implants without disease, they might have claimed that they were the evidence that implants prevented disease -- and there would have been a lot more of them. When the epidemiological surveys came in, they repeatedly confirmed that, while some women with breast implants were very ill, they were not more likely to be ill than women without the implants. But Gut pays attention to stories. It’s not so good with numbers and probabilities.

Advertisers know that fear sells products, from home security systems to pharmaceuticals. Newspapers know that stories about things to be scared of sell newspapers. Politicians know that fear scenarios get them elected. And as the media, and the advertisers and manufacturers and politicians compete with each other to get our attention, the fear appeals grow more and more urgent-sounding.

The cumulative effect is that we begin to feel like the world is coming to an end. Apocalypse is in the air – as evidenced by the growth and popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and novels.

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we let it go?

First, and foremost, notice. Notice when you’re scared. Gut is an important part of who you are. Gut is your friend. Embrace your intuitive side. But don't do what it says until you've checked it out with Head. Don’t let Gut masquerade as a rational or realistic assessment of risk.

When fear arises, say to yourself, “Ah, there’s fear." Notice where it shows up in your body: eyes opening wider, heart beating faster. Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. Instead, attend to fear. Pay attention to it, listen to it.

Letting go of something isn't a matter of deciding to banish it. Whether it is anger, or resentment, or a grudge, or attachment to a relationship that just isn’t working anymore -- or fear -- you didn’t consciously decide for the feeling to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control. Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. Let it go – that is, allow it to go on. You don’t have to do what it says, but give it a hearing.

If you saw the wonderful Pixar movie Inside Out, then you’ve seen how fear is like a little person inside. Just like a real person, if Fear feels listened to, then Fear will start calming down. It may take a while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Moreover, the more we know the way that fear works, and the more we understand how the quirks of evolution made our brains this way, then the more we can recognize our built-in tendencies toward certain kinds of error and the better able we are step back from a Gut reaction when we see it arising.

Finally, Head and Gut are not the only players. What about Heart? What about Spirit? When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does universal love have to say?” That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does love have to say?


December: Daily Standing up for Standing Rock

Rev. Karen Brammer, Standing Rock, part 12

Last night I sat in on a conference call sponsored by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) - the Standing Rock Solidarity Team. You will see a link below for resources to engage in or help organize an event for December.

Here are some of the things I noticed:

My resistance - I'm tired and think I need a break. SO I felt resistance before the conversation even began. As I listened I heard permission - no actually responsibility - to honestly assess for ourselves what we can contribute. I am not likely to be able or even inclined right at the moment to organize an even in December, but I want to keep my heart open. So I will pray every day for all that Standing Rock represents.

Accountability to native leadership - good questions were asked and appropriate information was provided to help folks know that the organizers are accountable to native leadership.  It may feel awkward or irritating to some, but it is so important to do.

Standing Rock is rippling throughout this country. Thank Goodnes, whether or not I am ready. One of the speakers said that the militarized treatment of Water Protectors has given the gift of letting the rest of the world know what native communities have been dealing with under the radar, all along. She also said that the movements building out from Standing Rock are a new tide of  extraordinary possibility. Possibility we have to respond to while it is here.

Spirituality is not a tactic or a strategy, said a woman who identified herself as registered with a tribe. "It is the way we live."  My reaction to her saying this, writing it down as important, tells me something. I do tell the story of Standing Rock, emphasizing again and again the power of constant and visible prayer there.  I witnessed that power as a phenomenon outside of my experience as a white Unitarian Universalist. I open my heart to learning from that. Stay tuned.

I am grateful for being able to share these thoughts, and for the thoughts you send back to me. And the prayers. Thank you.

Every day of December is designated as an action day to stand up for Standing Rock, and for the struggles of indigenous peoples' front line fight for environmental justice and sovereignty.

FROM Showing Up for Racial Justice - the Standing Rock Solidarity Team
Here is some information that was mentioned on the call last night that might be helpful for your planning.  We have coaches ready to support action planning so please get in touch!!



SURJ Midwest Organizer
SURJ Standing Rock Solidarity Team


Standing Rock evolves on every front

Rev. Karen Brammer, Standing Rock, part 11

I admit that I was a bit shaken when I heard the news.
The central sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin has been put out.
The purpose of that fire and the thousands of prayers brought to it, have been fulfilled.
The legacy of this camp has already begun its particular next path.
May I really can learn to grasp neither at what is good, nor at what is so hard.

If you don’t already, check in once in a while http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/

I just got a text today saying that the fire was relit last night by the youth council who have renamed it, “All Nations Camp”.

By now you have seen the multiple messages from camp leaders that no new arrivals to camp will be received. The focus to date has become winter well being and healing. See the video describing the upcoming Human Right Day, Dec 10 as Day of Healing and Prayer  http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/

Oceti Sakowin leaders are planning an orderly, gradual reduction of people at camp. Not a complete evacuation by any means. More than a thousand people will remain. However, getting folks on their way to assure safety in the winter is paramount. The Medic and Healer Council will also remain to tend to medical needs of those who remain https://medichealercouncil.com/

The UU congregation in Bismarck has strategized to help this movement of people out of the camp, especially when it is impacted by blizzard conditions. And they are ready. The direct assistance to camp is in no way over. Consider how you can support the Bismarck Mandan UU congregation to continue this long-term ministry. They still need help to pay for pellet stoves and the yurt (which may become the temporary home of whomever needs it most, including possibly, the Water Protector Legal Collective https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/11B5z8 . Please consider supporting the physical well being of those who stay in the Interfaith Yurt at camp https://www.generosity.com/faith-religion-fundraising/uu-presence-at-oceti-sakowin-yurt-fund

As you look through the Oceti Sakowin web site, you will see references to a variety of legal battles. Legal fights continue in local court and in higher courts for release of Red Fawn, justice for arrested Water Protectors, sovereignty, and more. There are ways in which the legal fronts may become even more critical fronts.

Journalist,  Mark Trahant writes about the “rule of law”, and its potential power; http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/why-the-rule-of-law-is-a-powerful-idea-for-standing-rock-20161129:
Then, the rule of law is such a funny phrase. One I have heard many times. It’s what was said in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho when Native Americans insisted that treaties gave them the right to fish for salmon. The states disagreed and used the power of government to arrest people. Many, many Native people. Until finally the courts said, wait, the rule of law has to include the Constitution and the powerful Article 6 that declares “treaties as the Supreme Law of the Land.”
In the end the states were wrong. One idea that came out of that litigation was that treaties had to be read as the tribal negotiators would have understood the words.
Imagine that. So the rule of law means that the tribal interpretation of treaty language is critical to understanding, and implementing, that sacred agreement.
People of conscience and faith, in all walks of life have reason to invest payer, advocacy, money and talent in the ongoing struggles of native communities around this country and in the world. 

Camp Oceti Sakowin and now Camp of All Nations give birth to a renewed focus, and perhaps a new international and intersectional (human rights and eco rights) wave of possibilities. This wave of possibilities, if we witness it with our hearts as well as intelligence, is another opportunity for those of us who belong to the dominant layers of humanity to expose ourselves to deep learning through native leadership, and life changing experiences of collaboration.

May it be so.


Maybe Belief Isn't the Point

Rev. Meredith Garmon

Your religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about three things:
  1. How you live; the ethics and values that guide your life;
  2. Community and shared ritual that builds community connection; and
  3. Experience, specifically those moments of transcendence, mystery, wonder, awe – oneness with and of all things
This is the conclusion I reached some years ago – the product of my own reflections on what seems to be really going on under the name “religion.” I subsequently found the main substance of this conclusion had been reached by religion scholar Phyllis Tickle, who identified morality, corporeality, and spirituality as three strands in the cable of meaning.

Congregational life aims to bring these three things together in such a way that each one reinforces the other two. Believing (shared and policed doctrine) is an aspect of how some religious traditions carry out and connect the three functions of religion, but it is optional. (Believing is central to most forms of Christianity and Islam, rather less central to Judaism, particularly BCE forms of Judaism, and peripheral to the Eastern religions and Unitarian Universalism.)

Since God seems to many of us to be an object of belief (or disbelief), what is the place of God in a religion that isn’t belief-centric? In my years of reflecting on what people seem to be talking about when they say “God” – whether in casual conversation, or in sermons, or in the dense prose of theological treatises – I have gathered the word “God” points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics; or the Cosmos: “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be” (Carl Sagan).

These are broadly shared referents of “God” whether or not one also conceives of God as person-like -- that is: having beliefs/knowledge and desires. Does the cosmos itself (or any of the other broadly shared referents of “God”) know and want? If we say yes, and add person-like to the conception of God, then it is easy to turn God into an object of belief: either we believe that there is such a knowing, wanting entity to which the broadly shared referents adhere, or we don’t. But if we say no, and conceive of God along the lines of the broadly shared referents without adding the person-like attributes of knowledge and desire, then God is less an object for (dis)belief and more a poetic, perhaps metaphorical, way of talking about certain experiences by gesturing toward the mysterious source beyond possible experience. God, then, is not something to believe or disbelieve (in), but something that anyone, whatever their beliefs, may experience.


Can the meaning of the word “God” be separated from “person-like; having knowledge and desires”? Sure it can. I see theology as a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. Theology may be fiction, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. To unpack this a bit:

(1) Meanings change. As we learn more about things, the meanings of the words we use to refer to them shift. “Water” didn’t used to mean “H2O;” now it does. Even central meanings of words can be left behind. “Planet” originally meant “wandering star,” and “atom” originally mean “indivisible.” Those were the central, core meanings. Then we learned that planets aren’t stars at all, and that atoms are divisible. I suppose we might have decided, “Those things we used to call ‘planets’ aren’t actually planets, since they’re not stars,” but instead we took the route of changing the core definition of “planet.” Just because “God” has meant “an entity that knows and wants” through much of human history doesn’t mean the word today must refer to such an entity.

(2) The truth of poetry and fiction is not to be assessed the way that the truth of science, or of testimony at a criminal trial, is assessed. The truth of a poem or a novel lies not in its verifiability by evidence, but in its power to shift the way we look at things, to infiltrate our perceptions and understandings, to introduce and explore ambiguity. In this regard, “person-like,” too, may be read poetically and metaphorically.

Sometimes I do relate to my world as if nature itself had intentions, or as if “inanimate” things were animate. I slide in and out of thinking my car has a personality, of imagining that storm clouds on the horizon are disgruntled, of being convinced the office printer is out to get me, of intuiting what the overall eco-system called Earth wants. When T.S. Eliot says, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” I don’t need what scientists or criminal lawyers would call evidence -- Eliot speaks a different kind of truth. When Genesis declares, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” and when the Psalmist says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and when the Gospel of John reports Jesus saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” those are the invitations of metaphor, not claims upon belief.

To treat theology as poetry means setting aside the question of what to believe. The arts do not require belief – only the suspension of disbelief. To say, “evidence makes it impossible for me to be a theist,” is like saying, “evidence makes it impossible for me to be a Walt Whitman fan.” Evidence is beside the point – because believing is beside the point.


Standing Rock Transitions

Rev. Karen Brammer, Standing Rock, part 10

I am en route to my home in NY State.  Last night I stayed at the UU Church and Fellowship of Bismarck and Mandan to answer calls of folks in need of emergency housing. (It was also really helpful to park the car close to the best-maintained roads. Snow removal and ice management is no small thing in a North Dakota blizzard. )

Yesterday Rev. Karen Van Fossan and I spent the day making calls and taking requests for emergency housing. The blizzard caused the closure of major highways and country roads alike, and forced travelers off the road. Thousands of those travelers were leaving Standing Rock camps as requested by Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault.

Throughout the day we learned scattered details. Some of that information came from organizations and leaders the congregation had not had contact with before, but who knew the local Unitarian Universalists were a center of connection and service to Oceti Sakowin.

We learned that thousands of folks went to Prairie Knights Casino (native owned and run) not far from camp. Prairie Knights was running low on blankets and food yesterday afternoon. The community centers in Cannon Ball and Fort Yates opened up for folks to bed down in relative warmth. The Red Cross and Standing Rock Council were working to coordinate trailer-based bedding for 100. By midafternoon, the roads into and out of camp were closed and snowplows were pulled off the road because of bad drifting.

At the church we got a call from Mandan emergency management asking if we could help 25 people who were ferried, we think, from stranded cars to the local high school for the night. The owner of a local motel called hoping we would have places for people to stay since she was getting up to 10 calls an hour from folks coming out of camp, and the local shelter was not open. Her motel was full and most of the other motels in the area were as well.

At the airport early this morning, I saw many folks from Standing Rock camps curled up on couches and in sleeping bags on the floor. They had a long night, but at least a safe one. On the plane, one man walked by with a bandaged hand, recovering from frostbite on his fingers. His glove got wet. 

Our interfaith yurt ran out of fuel, so folks had to go elsewhere. Theoretically they should have had enough for three days, but more was needed than anticipated with a temp of 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and a constant wind chill of 25 degrees below zero.

All the same, an unknown number of hearty folks will do their best to remain at camp, and hold it steady into the winter. While Council leadership is clear about leaving camp, camp leadership is concerned that when President Elect Trump is sworn into office, construction will resume. Many are also concerned that the drilling has not actually stopped. At least for the time being, the camp will stay open with drastically reduced numbers.

It has been a lot easier to write about the blizzard-induced housing and transportation crisis than the near-total evacuation of camp. Even though I have been part of this only two weeks, it is painful to end this extraordinary chapter of collaboration, cross-cultural learning, hard work, prayerful risk-taking and beauty.  I have a hard time imagining what transition will be like for those who have been doing this since spring.

I’ve never been great at sitting with not knowing what comes next in nonviolent organizing, so I anticipate it will not be easy for me this time.  Following the lessons of Oceti Sakowin Camp and Rev Karen Van Fossan, I will do my best to pray and listen well until I see where my foot should go next. I’ll do that alone and within community, trusting the next best local step will become clear.


Standing Rock Interfaith Prayer Service and Victory

Rev. Karen Brammer, Standing Rock, part 9

The Interfaith Prayer Service took the shape of many, many roughly concentric circles around the sacred fire. The elders sat under a small three-sided structure along with a huge drum. Once the ceremony was begun, speakers were invited to come forward. I want you to know that, once again Rev Karen Van Fossan and her congregation were honored in a significant way. She was one of the first speakers. She prayed and then 4 of us sang “Down to the River to Pray”.

The only reason I was among the singers is that I was invited to ride down with Karen, Andrea - a member of the choir, and Liz Anderson who has been right up there from the beginning as one of the primary organizers of this ministry. They were rehearsing the song in the car. I was invited to sing along, so I did. This is how things work here. Spontaneous invitation, gracious welcome.

As we sang this lovely old song, hundreds of people around and in front of us were silent until a few voices rose to join. I heard two male voices behind me and lifted the music for them to see. Well, one of them was Cornell West. Another a native vet. Sharing music with them and with these 3 women felt like an overwhelming, unearned gift. Throughout the day people approached to thank us, hand to their hearts. All I could do was bow my head. The song served as the gift of prayer Karen VF hoped it would be.

The service itself featured story-telling and prayer song in many languages. Teachings, testimonials, and more prayer. Many commented on the unique feeling of unity. Many thanked the youth and elders who began this movement with a run to Washington DC to ask President Obama to protect the water, and the elders and Spirits who insisted that the Water Protectors be non-violent.

You have the news that the Army Corp of Engineers has denied the easement for DAPL to put the pipeline under the water. We heard after the Interfaith Prayer Service, after the news was checked and cross-checked. The headlines use the phrase that camp “erupted”. It did.

Immediately we were engulfed in piercing cries and ululation that feel to me something like an electric pulse that flows from below our feet right up through our bodies and out of our mouths. There were stunned looks on faces – I am sure that was so for mine. There were long hugs and weeping. Flags and banners and sacred staffs were rocking and rising through the air. Great quantities of sage were suddenly billowing everywhere, blessing everyone and thanking the Sacred. Questions rose about whether President Elect Trump would be able to reverse this. It was announced that Barbara Boxer will introduce a bill to require consultation? permission? from native nations before doing any construction.

There is a great sense of victory and relief among the Water Protectors and supporters. There is a sober sense that this is one victory with many struggles ahead. But it was time to dance. Drumming and dancing broke out everywhere. There will be a victory celebration on Tuesday evening (don’t know if the 2-day storm will affect that). And I know the leaders are planning about the camps as we speak.

Subzero temps are immanent. For now, people are focused on making sure those who remain at camp are warm, fed and secured for the winter. The vets – thousands of them – will help make this happen.

Some of the leaders and families will go home for the holidays. Many people will stay to keep the camp functional as longer-term decisions get made.

I can say with all my heart that I completely trust the wisdom of the decision makers to choose next steps that will guide this new era of organizing across nations, races and cultures for earth and for justice.


God, the Verb

Rev. Meredith Garmon

The God-is-a-verb people generally don't actually use “God” as a verb. They say, for instance, that reality is more a matter of events than substances. “Events” conveys a more dynamic quality than “substances,” but if we’re talking about parts of speech (which, supposedly, we are), “event” is just as much a noun as “substance” is. The Process Theology folks speak of God as “process” and as “creativity” and as “energy.” All three words are nouns. Jean-Claude Koven said God was “unfoldment,” and “infinity,” and “everything,” and “a dance.” Nouns every one. For that matter, “verb” is a noun.

Still. The point is: there is in our life and our experience a cause for wonder, mystery, reverence. It is helpful to think of that as a process, a dance, a creativity, a love -- rather than as a person or entity. Calling it a verb is just a way of alluding to its active doing.

But supposing we did want to be sticklers for actually meaning what we said. How would that go for God to be a verb?

God as a Verb (Intransitive)

Verbs need a subject, if we’re going to speak in sentences, so we could say:

The universe gods. There’s the vast cosmos, quietly, grandly godding along through the ages. Reality gods. I god, you god, he she it gods, we god, you god, they god. All God’s children . . . god.

And what sort of activity is it “to god”? Following the lead of the process and the creativity theologians, to god is to unfold, like an infinite flower opening its petals; to develop through a process of interaction with all the rest of the godding universe. To god is to become transparent to the creativity of the universe shining through you. To god is to fandango across the ballroom of oneness, to trip the light fantastic not “with” but “as” the mountains and rivers and great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars. To god is, in the words of Sufi poet Hafiz, to “laugh at the word two.” It is to swim in the sea of mystery; to quaff from the cup of abundance. To god is to suffice. Whoever you are, whatever your imagined shortcomings, you are enough. To god is to do and be everything that you do and are.

Why would anyone want to call these activities "godding"? We might call them godding to help us remember, to help us wake up to, and attune ourselves to, the fact that everything we do and are is a part of the whole, a part of the dance, the mystery of creativity, the unpredictable unfolding of new things under the sun.

For the medievals, to apprehend reality at its most ultimate meant to conceive of changeless eternity. Above this world of corruption and change, God was pure, immutable, outside of time. To think of God as an active verb is to emphasize the time during which the actions take place. It is to put God in time, rather than removed from time. It is to perceive the holy in change, rather than imagine it in changelessness. It calls attention to divinity as spread throughout all of nature, as manifested by the activities of nature.

Verb theology fit with modern science, which tells us “that reality at the most fundamental level is composed of shimmering waves of probability, fluctuating, intertwining matter and energy” (Steven Phinney). Instead of saying species just are, biologists now understand species as in flux – as media, we might say, for the playing out of unpredictable creativity. God the verb is a response to these developments in both physics and biology.

God as a Verb (Transitive)

Now let's imagine God were a transitive verb. If reality gods, what does it god?

The universe gods you, and it gods me. Reality gods the mud and the flowers alike; it gods the Republicans and the Democrats alike. It godded Abu Ghraib and the Syrian refugee crisis. It godded despotic governments at the very moment they were disappearing their people and turning away aid. There is an activity of relationship between all things, an active connection of each thing with all things. In the fullest realization of God-as-transitive-verb, everything gods everything (else).

Unitarian theologican Henry Nelson Wieman, said that the “universe becomes spiritual” as
“more events become signs, as these signs take on richer content of qualitative meanings, as these meanings form a network of interconnective events comprehending all that is happening in the world.” (Wieman 23)
It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained total, complete and perfect spirituality when everything signifies everything else -- or when, we might say, everything gods and is godded by everything else.

Godding, then, would be the activity of building meaning by building interconnection and relationship.

The butterfly in Australia gods the weather in Chicago. You god the stars and the stars god you. Joy gods sadness and sadness gods joy. This use of “god” seems to mean something like “connects with” or “interdependently arises with.” But more. This way of thinking maybe helps us see through the illusion that there are any separate things. Everything IS everything else.

Verbs need a subject, if we’re going to speak in sentences. But what if we dispensed with sentences? Could we tell the story of life, of creation, in a language without subjects or objects, a language of only verbs, a language that perhaps the Cosmos itself speaks when it whispers to itself -- or in your ear? Having no tense (because it is timeless), and being neither singular nor plural (because it is both one and many), the infinite Cosmos speaks in the infinitive.

To come, to go,
To run, to jump, to twirl.
To birth, to grow.
To laugh.
To fall, to break, to cry, to rage.
To abandon.
To return, to embrace, to love.
To wound, to bleed, to weep.
To arise.
To work, to play, to smile.
To journey.
To heal.
To arrive, to arrive, to arrive.
To bless.


Begin with Gratitude

Cindy Davidson
“If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations . . . in the cities . . . between neighbors . . . in the home . . . in the heart.” (Lao-Tse, 6th Century BCE)
Centuries of “progress” since Lao-Tse's time, we are not a nation, nor even cities, at peace. Divisive language streams through our media, in our town meetings, and into our private conversations. We hear voices of despair, of concern for those whose wellbeing and lives are most in danger. The words we choose can hurt or heal.

George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and linguistics scholar, explains in detail how and why politics today is more the art of marketing than the art of debating policies. He suggests paying more attention to the words we use, especially in countering hate.
“The first thing to do is to not repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue.” (Lakoff, Huffington Post, 2016 Nov 22)
Each repetition of hateful rhetoric – even if what we intend is a strong rebuttal -- strengthens that hateful message and normalizes that worldview. Instead, Lakoff counsels, choose different language that affirms the positive visions we hold.

It is up to us to model the kind of civil and life-affirming discourse our country needs in our cities, in our media, on our social media, and in our conversations with neighbors and strangers. The words we choose can hurt or heal.

We are not a nation where there is always peace between neighbors. Nor, sadly, where there is always peace in our homes. How many conversations over family and neighborhood get-togethers have been emotionally charged, pitting one political opinion, identity, or value against another? How much hate has been exchanged for hate? How many conversations have heightened rather than lessened our anxiety and fear? The words we choose can hurt or heal.

Lao-Tse counsels that if there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in our hearts. Is there peace these days in your heart?

As the days become progressively shorter and colder, and darkness lingers, my instinct is to take refuge from all the distress of the outer world – to hunker down, to hibernate, and to let ideas gestate. I want to rest in the peace of quiet and await the return of light and spring’s growth and renewal. But I don’t know if our work can wait until spring. We are asked to “wait and see.” We are also tugged by the call to rise and defend our democracy NOW.

Engaging the life of the inner world and the outer world sometimes seems a bit like a dance to me, one leads first and the other follows. It’s easy to slip into a preference for one or the other. Sometimes it takes a vivid wake-up call like a crisis, or a reminder like a tradition, to call us back to a balance. For me, these times are calling me back into faithful spiritual practice.

Intentionally cultivating spiritual practices was not something I grew up with in my Methodist upbringing. I lacked the exposure or resources to augment Biblical literalism with more metaphorical, more expansive interpretations. Some years later, I had discovered Unitarian Universalism and wholeheartedly embraced the uplifting and healing language of religious humanism. In mindfulness meditation groups and my practice of “Morning Pages,” I found calm and centering. Yet I yearned for spiritual exploration and grounding deeper than that.

Fortunately, seminary exposed me to a variety of spiritual practices: yoga, meditation, chanting, prayer, the labyrinth, and observing a Sabbath. Through the contemplative Christian practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, I’ve been able to re-engage with the Biblical language and theology I once rejected. Slowly, new frameworks and a more healing religious and spiritual vocabulary took shape for me. Keeping an evening gratitude practice in the style of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s “Daily Examen” has also helped me to hear and speak a more grateful and compassionate way of being in the world.

Spiritual practices are Things We Practice. And we will fail, I know. And we will need to regroup and come, yet again come, back: back to the mat, the cushion, the breath, the journal, the forest -- back to whatever and wherever it is that we practice being fully human and fully alive.

Even then, we can practice choosing our words well and using language that’s not hurtful or damaging when we talk to or about ourselves.

My piano teacher a number of years ago taught me how to handle mistakes at the keyboard. When I hit the wrong note, instead of getting anxious and inwardly berating myself, she said I should stand up, raise my arms, and say “Whoops!” Then sit back down and resume playing. This lesson today lets me suspend critical self-judgment, jump back in where I left off, and give it another try. Grace and forgiveness embodied.

“Whoops! I’ve fallen out of practice.” Now, back to the mat, the cushion, the journal, the healing and inspiring texts. Gratitude abounds – the feeling, the practice, the learned behavior, and the imperative.

In this Advent season, I gratefully welcome the silence and stillness, the waiting in darkness for the coming light, preparing our hearts for peace.

When the words and thoughts form, may they be ones of gratitude and uplifting visions. When we are ready to speak and act, let hate and oppression not be ours to repeat. Let us speak the good news of our Unitarian Universalist values, principles, and actions. Let us speak kindly, but firmly and courageously, defending what is equitable, fair and just. Let us speak to ourselves with healing words, creating pathways for peace.

Begin with gratitude. It feeds our sense of hope.
Begin with gratitude. At the least, it may bring some peace to our hearts and our homes.
Begin with gratitude. It may be just the thing to give us a fighting chance of creating peace between neighbors, in our cities, in our nation and in the world.


Standing Rock Warriors of Peace

Rev. Karen Brammer, Standing Rock, part 8

I have so much to learn as a peace warrior.
As a peace warrior, currently doing basic organizational support work outside the camp, I have so much to learn beyond building spreadsheets, making phone calls, writing letters.

I watch myself as I instinctively respond to individual needs that surface many times a day when actually, our jobs here in Bismarck are more about consolidating resources and holding the safety of hundreds, now thousands as foremost. Not losing sight of the individual need, but holding all of it at the same time while making decisions.

Thank goodness I am working under Rev. Karen Van Fossan, (Karen VF) a minister who has become so skilled and wise in part through life, and in part through her mentorship under native leadership. Karen and the leadership of her congregation of 60 (10 more than I previously thought)  pull their limited but powerful pool of skills and resources together willingly, effectively and with so much love.

It is no small thing that Karen VF was initially invited into this work through direct invitation from Ronya Hoblit, Acting Director of the Native American Training Institute and a member of the Bismarck UU congregation. Coalition is built on relationship. How is it we can forget that?

I told Rev Karen VF yesterday that she is “battle hardened”. What I meant was that it seems to me her experiences have helped her hone her energies to the highest purposes as a warrior for peace. I am humbled. I also know that Karen builds her leadership around a core of spiritual refinement and practice. It is no accident, but a commitment, a path.

Me? As a white woman in my 60s, I have worked for decades on justice issues. I am learning the joy of following the lead of younger adults as well as elders. I have years of useful experience in living through failure - actually helpful to newer activists as older activists were helpful to me decades ago. I have enduring commitment and conviction and some ideas. And thankfully, I have learned something about following leadership when I see it - no matter what age the leader happens to be.

I am rapidly learning more of what it means to stand as nonviolent protectors against a militarized, multi-layered strategy that must be thinking “enemy” rather than community. I have worked with nonviolent strategies in many different kinds of justice campaigns, but never quite this.

The violence leveled against the native leadership and supporters is physical, psychological, and able to use public lies to garner support. It is profoundly  disconnected from our humanity.

What do we as Water Protectors have? We have numbers in the camps. Your support of the material survival of this is critical.

We have massive public and global support. My hunch is that the world is responding, as I am, to the dual concerns of protection of water over corporate benefit, and disrespect of lawful native sovereignty. Your calls and emails crying out in support of these are critical. Do not let up.

Hopefully, we will also benefit from law should it allow tribal sovereignty to become part of the focus in court. But I have to be careful not to project the notion that the leaders of Water Protectors are focused on racism. The crystal clear focus is water, and the planet and next generations' ability to live through water that is clean.

We have love in community – a powerful vision and reality built imperfectly and persistently each day at camp, and radiating out beyond camp into the world.

We have the deep, prayerful leadership of the native communities that we are learning, again very imperfectly as white people, to hear and follow. It is so exciting to me to see this not only here but in Black Lives Matter and so many other movements today.

We have thousands of social media users, and many dozens of independent film-makers, photographers and archivists who currently and in the future will counter more mainstream sources which miss or distort so much in historic story-telling.

I end today’s blog as I began; in awe and full of gratitude for the Water Protectors and the Source that has sustained them, and all of us, for millennia.

Water is Life. Blessed Be.

Thank you.