When the Winds Have Shifted, When the World Comes Undone *
(* phrases from the song “Resilient” by Rising Appalachia)

A message delivered February 16, 2020
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California

 

Our Heritage of Optimism

Universalists and Unitarians over the centuries have been, by nature and thus by theology, an optimistic lot. We’ve expected things to turn out pretty well, in the end.

Historically, the Unitarian view sees human beings as essentially and inherently good at heart. Not perfect, but gradually perfectible – given the right care, the right support, the right awareness, the right circumstances. Our job, then, is to cultivate the good within us and within each other, to cultivate our character.

The Universalist view sees God as essentially and inherently good at heart. Not an angry and punitive patriarch/judge/prison guard/military general, but rather an infinitely loving father/mother/presence who, most of all, wants us to know ourselves as loved and loving, and who would sacrifice everything in order for us to realize that in the end. Our job, then, is to love the “hell” out of the world.

These two ways of perceiving ourselves, our existence, and our purpose arose in and separated themselves from the dire doomsday warnings of their religious parents. Our people left their religious home, rejecting the reigning message that the sky is perpetually falling, and we that we inherently flawed human beings are falling with it, helplessly, inescapably.

Our people have been people with a can-do, MacGyver-style confidence in ourselves, in human nature and in God’s nature or the nature of the universe. We’ve fortified ourselves with the WD-40 lubricant of universal love and the duct tape of science and human ingenuity, and we’re good to go! No matter how dire things look, we expect things to turn out reasonably well in the end.

This is a product of our mostly middle class, mostly white, mostly American experience of things turning out reasonably well in the end.

Until…

And so when things don’t go as we expect, “when the winds have shifted” and “the world comes undone” (as the song we heard earlier put it,) we’re often at a loss, not at all sure what to do. Whether we have the kind of personality that’s triggered to get out there and fight, or the personality that wants to flee before the coming storm, or the personality that freezes and pulls protectively inward, suddenly it seems like the sky is falling. And since our inherited theologies rooted in an optimistic view of humans and history have not prepared us for such a calamity, we are prone to experience a crisis of faith when things aren’t turning out as we hoped.

When the human cruelty of World Wars I and II challenged not only our collective confidence in human goodness but also in God’s goodness, Unitarians and Universalists were led to examine the truth of their message and their expectations. That crisis of faith led many away from belief in God, giving birth to the humanist movement within our traditions in the 1930s.

More recently, after having had our first African American president, and certain that we were about to elect the US’s first woman president, the 2016 election of Donald Trump, its daily aftermath, and the nation’s potent and seemingly permanent polarization have called into question our confidence in humanity’s forward trajectory, such that, for many of us, it’s not merely a question of U.S. politics, but of human survival on earth. An ultimate concern.

When I shared today’s service title with Anne, who creates weekly Facebook ads for our services, Anne came up with this background image.

It does capture the feelings of some of us, doesn’t it? It’s the look of the last three and half years for some of us.

What does our faith tradition offer us for resources in such a time?

Well that depends on what you think the need is. Is the need to calm our fears? Or is it to help us live into and to navigate our fears?

You will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe we need some of each.

If we are feeling so unsafe that we are trapped in a perpetual state of alarm, we will not be able to access the openness and creativity we need to see possibilities and opportunities and the paths out of the danger. That’s the physiological reality of feeling unsafe, part of us shuts down so we can focus on sheer survival.

So, we need to find ways to calm ourselves enough to access our higher, more creative functioning, and we need to stay alarmed and alert enough to search for and find the road leading through this time to a future infused with more of the values of sustainability, compassion, justice, kindness, openness that we hold so dearly.

Being together in communities like this – being together in person in connecting and supportive ways – is an important part of helping us stay calm enough to see the possibilities and the paths. It’s important to know that you are not alone, and to know it in your body and your heart, not just in your head. And even though the winds have shifted and the world we thought we knew seems to be coming undone, the world might not be ending.

Anne added this image to the background.

It’s almost playful. It could be someone riding the wind, Mary Poppins, style, or it could be someone about to be dashed by the storm. Hard to tell.

The Long View

At a meeting here a couple weeks ago, when people around a table were voicing their laments and fears, Joel looked around the table and said something to the effect of, “It’s been worse.” It was worse in the 60s and 70s, he explained, when King, the Kennedy’s, Malcom X and others were assassinated, when families were divided by the U.S. war against Vietnam. “It’s been worse,” Joel communicated.

That longer view reminds us that this will be neither the first nor the last time the world will appear to be coming undone, no matter how unique this moment feels to us.

It’s the glass half-full approach that can keep us from despair.

One of the most hopeful perspectives for me lately arrived a week and a half ago, in this room, as we listened to the encouragement of George Lakey, a quaker and sociologist who’s been active in and studying direct action campaigns for 60 years. He takes the long view. He pointed out to us that deep political polarization opens up opportunities for significant change. “Necessary change happens during tumult,” he teaches, not during times of tranquility – tranquility, with its tiny, incremental, essentially insignificant changes – “often keeps unjust conditions stuck in place.”

“[Yes,] we’re frustrated and saddened by the first impact of polarization,” he empathizes: “relationships fracture, racism becomes more overt, violence more frequent. However, the volatility also makes positive change easier to get. In the polarized 1930s, [for example] progressive movements got changes they could only dream of in the ‘20s, like unions, labor laws, Social Security, conservation, electricity for millions, bank regulation and better policies for family farmers.”

Lakey referenced the history of extreme polarization in Nordic countries that led them, eventually, to become today’s gold standard for quality of life, economic equity, and shared commitment to the common good.

Lakey shared with us his metaphor of a forge, in which iron is heated up in order to form it. When a society heats up, as painful and as dangerous as that can be, he told us, it becomes much more pliable than when everything’s calm. And being pliable opens the possibility for a society to bend – to bend in very scary direction, yes, OR at long last, in the direction that people have been longing for.

Keeping Our Cool

In one of my first a seminary classes, our professor, a woman of color, pointed out to us that most white, protestant European cultures in the U.S. – the core of our UU congregations historically – like to keep emotions at a cool, contained level. We don’t like to things to get too heated. We have Robert’s Rules of Order to keep things from getting out of hand. We don’t like people to raise their voices or express too much anger, or in fact to express too much emotion of any, kind. Cool, ordered, reasoned calm is our white, protestant culture modus operandi. Or else we get uncomfortable and anxious.

It’s made it difficult for us, over the years, to listen to people of color when they’ve raised their voices in anger, finally, after not being listened to again and again and again. And, our professor taught, it means that in our congregations we are likely to miss out on the emotions that feel good as well, and the emotional strength and depth that are vital for keeping our intellect grounded to the common good and our own spiritual health. Our job is often, she said, to raise the emotional heat, not to lower it.

Moving in the Heat

So here we are, like half of our fellow U.S. citizens, dismayed, frantic even, at the polarization in the nation, wondering and fretting about how to bridge the divide, how to calm the rising tension, how to bring everybody together, when what may be most needed first is to let the heat get hot enough long enough to soften the hell-bent ways of our rising economic inequality and the disregard for wellbeing that comes with it. And then, while all the usual structures are softened, even failing and falling apart, to bring our forces to bear to bend the moral arc of the nation toward justice, toward equity, toward sustainability.

Lakey points out that polarization follows the curve of income inequality, and that income inequality is rising at a faster and faster pace, now larger than it’s ever been. In other words, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. However, the growing high-powered polarization will make genuine change possible, says Lakey. Not certain, but possible. “Where these pliable times take us,” he adds, “[will depend] on the movements we can build,” the sustained, direct-action, non-violent movements we can build.

“[Since the current] division expresses an economic arrangement,” says Lakey, “it’s not something we can fix through urging more civil discourse,” through being nicer to each other. “Even though [we will] want to use our conflict resolution in order to cope, we can also expect more drama at the extreme ends of our polarizations, and more ugliness and violence.

And yet he writes, “I feel lucky to be alive now because this is the best chance in my lifetime to make really big progressive change.” He calls the powerful conditions emerging under the surface and opening new possibilities, “signals of emergence.” “I see evidence, right now, that these trends will give us a chance to gain victories [we’ve never] been able to reach before in this country.”

“Progressives need to breathe deeply,” he writes, “and to make our peace with the reality.”

In These Times

In the Sunday service after the 2016 election, I quoted UUA staff member Sue Phillips. Though the meaning then was slightly different, in this current light it takes on new relevance. Sue wrote:

It will be tempting to hunker down (in the face of these divisions), to retreat into spaces where we might be soothed; our realities affirmed and unchallenged.

Those of us who are mourning must, of course, grieve. But in our grieving we must not hide, or we risk being unfaithful to the call at the very center of Unitarian Universalism: to co-create a world of love and justice….

Creating beloved community is messy, gritty, fearsome, and hard. This is the time we have been practicing for.

The only faithful response to this moment of extraordinary division is to show ourselves and our communities that another way is possible….

My friends, we were made for this work. And now we have to actually do it.

At the time I thought “doing it” meant mending the rift. Now I think it means first utilizing the dynamics that come with the rift.

The very same U.U. optimism that can get in our way can also allow us to look for opportunity in the chaos.

Fixing polarization actually is our job, says Lakey, but it doesn’t look the way we expect. The job of the middle class, and middle-class institutions like ours, is to bridge the dynamics between the poor and the wealthy, to keep them from straying or staying too far apart. And we’ll need to do that through genuinely radical change and new ways of being, through the communities of care and hope in which we bind ourselves, through the connections and coalitions we cultivate, and through the sustained non-violent action we undertake in the midst of the heat.

Addressing the huge and growing discrepancy between those with the most and those with the least cannot happen through simple, small, quiet, calm band-aid fixes or the legislative processes of the current system, says Lakey.

We will need to face directly into the winds, not away from them.

We will need to face into the winds together, drawing on each other while we build new ways forward in the midst of the storm and the heat. We cannot simply wait for it all to pass or to get better on its own.

For the moment, this imagery brings to mind a flock of birds, on the ground or in the water facing into the wind, ready to take off at any moment, counting on the wind coming at them for the lift they will need.

A crisis of faith is also always an opportunity, when the winds have shifted, when the world comes undone, we just might, together. find our most important resilience yet.

So may it be.

So may we be.

Primary Resources Cited, Consulted, Recommended

Can now really be the best time to be alive? A dialogue across generations by George Lakey and Yotam Marom. WagingNonviolence.org  December 26, 2019.

Polarization can bring about real political change. Our past proves it. by Nathan Schneider. America: The Jesuit Review. AmericaMagazine.org  January 14, 2019.

Lakey, George. How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning. Brooklyn New York: Melville House, 2018. Print.