If asked to answer the question “Who am I?” – how would you answer? No context, no setting, no defined purpose for asking, just the question: who am I? If you haven’t already, stop reading and take a moment to think about it, right now. What would your answer be? Who are you?
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Identity is such a tricky thing – it’s fluid, and our answers to the question of who we are both change and don’t change over time. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have answered “minister,” but now that’s a central part of who I am. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have answered “husband,” but my marriage is now a central part of my life. Three years and one week ago, I wouldn’t have answer “father,” but now parenting is a central focus of my day-to-day activities. On the other-hand, male, straight, white, and Unitarian Universalist are all identities that have remained a constant throughout my life. Even those though – my understanding of them has changed over time. For example, I have a much more nuanced understanding of my whiteness now than I did ten years ago. And the way that I am Unitarian Universalist in the world has evolved considerably across my lifespan. So even my relatively “fixed” identities have changed. And yet, despite all this change, I still feel like the same me at my core. A changed me, but me nonetheless.
And, there are other ways to define ourselves still. When
My relationship with my own name, or, more accurately names, is something of a saga. It mirrors the relationship between name, identity, and story as it has played out in my own life. It’s a story I’ve not told often. I hope it encourages you to reflect on story, change and continuity in your own life.
In the beginning (don’t all good stories start this way?), I was born Julia Kay Sheridan. Sheridan, of course, was my father’s name; in the 1940s, what else would it have been? The whole process of naming kids was pretty automatic. When I married (at the tender age of 19, but that’s another story), I never gave a thought to doing anything other than taking on my new husband’s name: Kinschner. In my mind, we women were still properly identified with our husbands, and adopting his name legally embodied that identification for all the world to see. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. It was the 1960s, but I was stuck in the 50s alongside June Cleaver.
Fast-forward through several years of marriage, one child, the rest of college and then seminary, and the (very) faint rumblings of greater consciousness. Oh, and graduate school. When my first husband and I divorced during my graduate school years, I kept his name, in part because it seemed easier if my daughter and I had the same last name. But then he remarried, a lovely woman who was the new Mrs. Kinschner. That felt odd to me,
One of the main tenets of Humanism is that we need to be focused on the here and now. Humanists have long argued that there is no heaven and hell or afterlife, and more importantly, given that that’s the case, that we need to spend our lives making the world a better place right now, instead of trying taking action trying to earn merit for our post-death destination. Though both sides come at it from opposite ends of the spectrum, this perspective actually meshes beautifully with our Universalist heritage. The core tenet of Universalism is that God loves everyone, and specifically back in the day when belief in heaven and hell were the norm, that that meant God sent everyone to heaven. So the Universalists came to a very similar conclusion – since we were all going to be saved, the focus can shift from trying to earn a good afterlife, to living a good life now.
Humanism, our theme for this month of March, takes things a step further, of course, and places responsibility for creating the best possible here and now on us human beings. And that’s a pretty awesome responsibility – awesome responsibility, both in the sense of being amazing cool, and in the sense of being amazingly large and serious. Most of have probably seen the quote incorrectly attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi’s actual quote was a little bit more subtle and nuanced than that, but we like
Many of us continue to feel frightened and vulnerable in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. We’re fearful for the values we hold dear, the vulnerable populations we are committed to protect, what shape our own lives may take, and for the future of our nation itself. There is reason to feel that way: Muslims, people of color, women, the entire LGBTQ community, immigrants (particularly but not exclusively Middle Easterners and Mexicans), those who “look Middle Eastern,” are all threatened based on who they are rather than on anything they might have done. Now more than ever, we need to stand together against the forces that seek to divide us. All of us—each and every one of us—stands to lose if the forces of exclusion, oppression, and division prevail.
Humanism and religion are fundamentally in accord on this basic point. Many people equate humanism with either secularism or atheism. While some humanists are either secularists or atheists, not all are. Some humanists are anti-religious, but not all are. Humanism is a thread that has been woven into the fabric of religion for centuries, and continues to be. Christian humanism was born in the Renaissance. Today there are vibrant humanistic emphases in most of humankind’s religious and spiritual traditions.
It’s worth reviewing both our Sources and our Principles in this context, since for many of us in our beloved community, neither remains in the forefront of our minds a lot of the time [I’m including myself here.]
There’s been a trend in much of United States more liberal or “emotionally-tuned” in culture to lift up and celebrate the importance of feelings. The standard line goes something like this: “There’s no such thing as an invalid feeling. All feelings are valid.” The reason for this pushback, of course, is that there has been a tendency in our culture to invalidate people’s feelings, to ignore them, pretend they aren’t there, or actively require people to invalidate them. And the pushback is good; invalidating and ignoring our feelings is absolutely unhealthy. Feeling, naming, and being present to our feelings, and the having the ability and a safe space to share our feelings with others – all of these are an important part of a healthy human experience.
I’m not so sure about the second part of that statement though, “All feelings are valid.” I’m not so sure, for example, that shame is a “valid” feeling – at least not one that should be honored and accepted just the way it is. Shame, of course, is feeling bad about who are as a human being, that there is something wrong with the essence of you. Guilt on the other hand is feeling bad about a behavior or a choice we’ve made. It’s the difference between saying to a misbehaving canine, “bad dog” and “no, don’t do that.” Or in human terms, between saying “I’m stupid, I’m such an idiot,” versus “I made a mistake.” Shame addresses the essence of who we are,
I have a problem with the concept of power. When I think of power, I think first of power exercised over vulnerable individuals and populations. It seems that “power” too often means power over, the power to intimidate, to bully, to take advantage, in short, to hurt and to harm. What immediately comes to my mind is the power of child abusers over their victims, legislatures denying basic human rights to LGBTQ persons, of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un using the threat of nuclear missiles to bully South Korea and attempt to bully the rest of the world, of government officials wielding hateful power over immigrants and native peoples and promising to cut services that have enhanced the quality of life for many people. And the list goes on.
I know there are other metaphors of power out there. So, in a sense, this column is an attempt to call to my own mind some of those more life-giving, more spiritually healthy metaphors. I invite you to come along with me, to read these slowly and thoughtfully, and to reflect on how they might inform your own relationship to power. Does any of them hold the potential to help heal whatever wounds you may carry from having been the victim of abusive power? And if you are not wounded individually, consider that you may be an ally or member of a group that is being singled out.
The metaphors that are most meaningful to me often come from the natural world:
Belonging means to be accepted some place for who you are, whereas fitting in means you have to change who you are in some way to be accepted. In a sense then, belonging is the feeling we get when we are the recipients of unconditional love – when we are loved just for who we are. That belonging feeling can also happen under other conditions though, such as when we’re in a gathering or community that values us for just the way we are. Whether it’s through unconditional love, an accepting community or some other way, feeling like we belong is a powerful experience.
My hometown Unitarian Universalist congregation was probably the place where I felt like I most belonged when I was a kid. I would roam the halls before and after the service, playing with my church best friend, the Director of Religious Education’s daughter, Megan McDonald. Church was a safe place, a place where I could be myself, a place where I was unconditionally loved and supported by an amazing community. Which is a good thing, because I sure didn’t feel like I belonged at school. And I even had a hard time feeling like I belonged as a young adult, after college. I had a great group of friends when I lived in Philadelphia, and I certainly belonged with them to a large degree. And I was a member of and belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia when I lived there. But the place where
I’d met a friend on campus for lunch. I’d parked in the Emens Auditorium parking structure because it was close to where we were meeting. My emeriti faculty hangtag doesn’t allow me to park there unless I park as a visitor. On this crowded day, that meant parking on the very top deck. When I was ready to leave, that, in turn, meant walking up four flights of stairs. I later learned that there is an elevator, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I’ve been moving quite slowly and with great difficulty of late due to a worse than usual time with chronic hip and leg problems. As I began to make my way up the stairs one slow step at a time, I became aware of a young woman behind me. I turned and smiled at her, and invited her to go around me. What happened next surprised me. She declined, willingly keeping pace with my slowness. We had an absolutely delightful conversation all the way up the stairs, and parted with warm wishes and smiling hearts when we reached the top. We both belonged in that brief encounter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what being able-bodied, or not, means in our culture. Rich Harris, who worked with what I believe was then called “disabled student development” before his retirement from Ball State, often said that we are all “TABS,” his acronym for “temporarily able-bodied.” I’ve clearly lost my TAB status, and that’s had me reflecting on the
The aftermath of November 8th is still ringing through our lives – it’s still ringing through my heart – and so I sit here wondering: how did this happen? What, dear god, is going happen to people of color, Muslims, Jews, women, the LGBTQ community, and so many other minority populations now that we've effectively given permission to hate groups to be part of the mainstream? And what do we do now? While we'll be analyzing and debating the "how?' question for a while, the "what do we need to do now?" question is in some ways easier, at least in the big picture. While specifics have yet to come into focus, the overall needed response is crystal clear: we must fight. We must fight for what is right. We must fight to protect the rights and safety of all in our country. We must fight for justice.
Now, if you’re aware that our theme for September is Peace, and that I’m supposedly writing this article on that topic, you might be wondering how fighting is compatible with peace. For that, we’ll turn to the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote (in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, #584):
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.
Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love
I was born in 1945. My daughter was born in 1968. My two older grandchildren were born in 1995 and 1999. The younger three came along in 2012, 2014 and 2016. This means that neither me, nor my daughter, nor my grandchildren have ever known a time when the United States was not at war.
Some were major wars that involved coalitions of many nations—World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the current war on ISIL. Others involved only the US and one other country. Some, we said we “won.” Others, well…
Most were military engagements that involved US troops and firepower with or against other nations. There was also the Cold War – that persistent state of tension between the Western Bloc, the US and its allies, and the Eastern Bloc, composed of the USSR and its allies – that followed WWII. While military historians disagree on its exact dates, 1947-1991 is typically accepted. What I personally remember most about the Cold War Era is huddling in a terrified ball underneath my classroom desk in grade school when the sirens howled and we had air raid drills. I was certain that the images I had seen on jerky black and white newsreels of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would soon be images of the small town where I lived. Not necessarily logical, but kids’ fears often aren’t logical.
A recent report indicated that tensions between the United States and Russia are now at a level not seen since the Cold