Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupied: You Are Invited

For me, it all began with jury duty.

Those of you in the congregation that are Facebook friends with me will remember that about a month ago I posted several whiney status updates about having to spend four days down at the Oakland courthouse not being impaneled on a jury. The experience was in itself a microcosm of how I and so many other people feel about our government right now. I went there because I had to, not because I felt my participation in the process would or could make a difference. I certainly believe in the idea of a trial by a jury of my peers, and would want 12 good and caring people to take that job seriously if I were to ever end up on trial.

But at the same time, it took just minutes of being in that courtroom to see the effects of our economy on our legal system. The defendant was a young man from the roughest and poorest part of Oakland who stood accused of murder. His public defender was disheveled and old and sat with his back to us as we entered the courtroom and sat down. The prosecutor was an attractive woman who was well dressed and stood facing us. She made reassuring and confident eye contact with each of us as we entered. I could already see the deck heavily stacked against the poor local kid, innocent or not. And it went on and on from there.

I spent much of my four days of jury service feeling this major disconnect between the ideals this country represents and the realities it currently exhibits, due to the economic climate. It is tough, because I want to love my country. I really believe that the American democratic experiment is one of the most important things this planet has going for it. But when I look around at the reality of the American political system, it doesn't look anything like the democratic ideals that make me proud to be an American. Our once brave idea of representative democracy by the people and for the people has been fully infiltrated and co-opted by financial interests. What once was a tyranny maintained by the crown has become a tyranny maintained through corporate influence. Sitting there for four days gave me plenty of time to stew about these issues, but I in no way was connecting them to Occupy.

Must Protect Bull At All Costs!

At that point, I had heard about the Occupy Wall Street protest and encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York City on the news, and I knew that there was something going on at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland that was related, but that was all. I had heard their language about the 99 percent but I hadn't really connected with their message because I wasn't really sure what it was. At that point if you had asked me my honest perception of the Occupy Wall Street movement I would have said it seemed like an unfocused bunch of campers and not much more.

And then during my second day of Jury duty we had a lunch break and I decided to wander the five or so blocks down to Frank Ogawa Plaza to see what was going on, more as a tourist than anything. And at first what I saw confirmed my assumptions. It was a bunch of college-age kids who had set up tents in the center of the park, and then surrounding their living quarters had built a kitchen, an info tent, a library and a few other amenities. It didn't look too different from summer camp, actually. I walked around for a few minutes, relatively disengaged from the camp, taking some pictures with my iPhone, still in tourist mode.

Early Occupy Oakland felt Like Summer Camp

And then I decided to just sit down and observe for a few minutes. I wanted to see who was there and what they were doing. But I quickly learned that being an observer and tourist at Occupy is not what it is about at all. Before I had much of a chance to do that someone came up to me and asked, "Is that your sign?" I was sitting next to an abandoned protest sign that someone had left propped against the bench I was sitting on. I told him it wasn't, but it quickly became clear that the question had simply been a pretext to begin a conversation. We spent the next 20 minutes or so in the kind of deep and real discussion about our country and how to fix it that you don't just normally casually strike up. But being there, even just on the outskirts of the Occupy Camp gave this guy permission to just walk up to a complete stranger and begin this conversation.

It was more exhilarating then I expected, but then I remembered the coma-inducing reality of Jury duty and so I quickly tempered my excitement and hustled back to the courthouse. For the better part of another week my involvement and thoughts about Occupy stayed there. My interest had been piqued, but certainly nothing had changed my mind or even dared me to consider that anything real was happening down there. I was still convinced this was an unfocused group of campers which just happened to attract some neat conversation to it.

Then, on the evening of October 25th, the Oakland Police, supported by more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies, raided the camp in full riot gear, attacking peaceful and unarmed protestors with batons and flashbang grenades, in one instance seriously injuring an Iraqi war veteran.

The shocking images of police brutality quickly went flying around the world. It hit home for many people in the Bay Area as well, and I was one of them. I still was not quite sure what Occupy was all about, but I feel like part of my job as a religious leader is to protect anyone from violence, but especially those who are peacefully trying to exert their first amendment right to free speech.

So I joined thousands of people the next evening at the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa plaza and experienced my first General Assembly.

There is a lot - a whole lot - I could say about my experiences so far with Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement. But in the limited time I have this morning what I want to focus on is the General Assembly, because I think it is the most important part of what this movement represents.

The Tent Has Emerged as a Powerful Symbol of the Occupy Movement

But, first, one quick tangent about tents: The planting of tents that has become the symbol of the movement is not what Occupy is about. But at the same time, symbols are important. As much as I do strongly believe that the regular General Assembly gatherings are the absolute most important part of Occupy, I also know that before those encampments sprang up all over the place, the national conversation was completely focused on how quickly we could cut our country's safety net of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But since those tents went up that conversation has been absolutely flipped on its head and refocused on the immoral and unethical distribution of wealth and the unchecked power of corporations. So I don't think the tents are unimportant; I think the occupation part of Occupy has been essential to getting attention focused on the right issues.

But it is the General Assembly that represents the answer to everyone's questions about what Occupy is and where it could be going. My first General Assembly was literally a revelation. As I wrote on my blog that night after returning home:

What I experienced was something so much deeper and more meaningful than I could have ever expected. For the first time in my life as an American I experienced true democracy. The work had gotten underway about an hour before I arrived. Thousands of people gathered peacefully, centered on a raised area where one person at a time could speak. And since the crowd was far larger than the small speaker system could reach, all the words were repeated by those close enough to hear, and so they radiated out in a slow, gentle echo, a system called "the people's mic." It truly is the sound of people hearing each other.

My First General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

At the beginning of this evening's General Assembly, a proposal had been brought to the assembled group from one of the Occupy Oakland committees. The proposal called for a general strike and walkout in Oakland the following Wednesday, November 2. For the next several hours we debated the proposal, sometimes as a group of three thousand and at other times in small groups of twenty. By 9:30 pm we were ready to vote, so we once again broke into our small groups of twenty, exchanged a few last thoughts, and voted.

Although a few people in my group voted against the proposal, it ended up easily passing the 90 percent threshold we had set and people excitedly expressed their approval for the General Strike we had just called for. It was like nothing I had ever been a part of before. Thousands of us had suddenly pulled back the curtain of illusion that what we do in America is democracy. Suddenly the layers of campaign ads, lobbyists, pork bills, and crooked politicians seemed completely ridiculous and exposed for the corporate lie it is.

It is really not at all my intention to convince any one of you that the Occupy movement is for you. Like many things, it is complicated; probably anything you currently think about Occupy has some truth to it. But what I believe the Occupy movement represents is an opportunity for this country to have a much-needed and long-overdue conversation with itself. It is not true that we have to continue to feel alienated by our government and out-muscled for a say by corporate interests.

Although it is not my intention to convince you that Occupy is for you, it is my intention to strongly encourage you in whatever way I can to attend just one General Assembly to see for yourself. You may or may not walk away feeling as I did, but at least you will know for yourself. Because the other lesson I have re-learned in the past few weeks is that the way the media shapes a story is very much about the interests of corporations and has very little to do with reporting facts. There is no question that people benefitting from the status quo do feel threatened by the Occupy movement and have a real interest in portraying it as an unfocused group of people willing to use violence, which is so far from the reality you will find on the ground.

The reality I have found is that this General Assembly has indeed created a real space and structure for this conversation to take place and that it is attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of average citizens like you and me who want to once again find a way to participate in a meaningful dialogue about the future of our country. This past Wednesday I invited anyone from the congregation to join me at a GA and a dozen of you showed up with only 24 hours of notice. I certainly plan on making this same offer again.

The final truth I want to end on is that I have no idea where all of this is going. My personal hope is that we are building momentum towards a constitutional amendment clearly defining that a corporation is not a person and that money and free speech are two different things. But these General Assemblies are radical little incubators where hundreds of new ideas are being proposed, debated and researched. I have no doubt that a lot is going to come out of this. New people are being motivated and encouraged to participate in our democracy and that can only be a good thing.

Most importantly, we are only a few short months into this movement. Recently I was speaking to the Rev. Phil Lawson, a famous and well-respected elder of the civil rights movement. He heard some discouragement in some of what I was saying at a recent meeting of the interfaith clergy group I am working with at Occupy. He wanted me to understand that the civil rights movement had started the same unfocused way. It was a confusing mess of committees, actions and ideas that took several years to gain the lightning focus that King and a few others helped bring. We only remember those iconic moments of triumph now, but the beginning felt a whole lot like this.

I conclude with these wise words from T.S. Elliot:

What we call a beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

May it be so. Ashe.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I Heart the People's Mic

It is not exactly breaking news to declare that America is sharply divided. And this "Red State" versus "Blue State" mentality has been building for decades, but appears to have reached a crescendo of gridlock and apathy just as the bill for our nation's unprecedented chapter of gluttony has come due.

But this entire concept of an evenly divided electorate is yet another false dichotomy sold to us by those that wish to maintain the status quo of the two business party solution. The media loves to show us maps like this, re-enforcing the notion of the false Democrat/Republican divide:

Red State, Blue State

But the truth is that within those red and blue states, hundreds of thousands of people are literally wiped off the map when we talk of "Red State" and "Blue State." As anyone who attempted to dig even a little bit deeper into the numbers after the 2008 election knows, our country really looks a lot more like a sea of purple, more red in some areas and blue in others, but for the most part a full spectrum of political thought, which produces a map that looks like this:

The Spectrum of American Political Allegiance

And from this map a much more accurate picture of America emerges. We are not so much divided as we are diverse, and being diverse is a very different thing than being divided. In a divided system, their are multiple clearly defined opposing truths, and the challenge lies in moving someone from their truth. In a diverse system, there are many similar truths but the challenge lies in decoding differences of culture in order to line up the similarities.

Many groups spend far too much energy solving the wrong problem, and as long as we continue along the false dichotomy of choosing between Republican and Democrat, our American democracy will remain stuck. When we begin to re-frame our problem and see the truth about where we are, the solutions are actually not too hard to find.

From my study of Intercultural Competency, I have come to understand that one of the essential skill sets one must learn in order to navigate diversity is the ability to communicate. Most of us are good at only one half of communicating, and usually it is the talking part. As the old saying goes, we are born with one mouth and two ears and we should probably use them in that ratio as well. But most of us, myself included, are much better at talking than listening. So often, when we do listen, we are merely listening to respond, not to really hear. We are listening for the few words that connect to what we already want to say next, so that we can continue to make the conversation about us, rather than deeply listening to the words of the other simply for their own sake, so that we can help another feel heard.

Hearing each other, truly hearing what we think and feel, is the most important thing we could do right now. I really believe that the more we share our stories in an unmediated way, without allowing the media and its corporate interests to shape them into their narrative first, is the antidote to all that ails this country.

I know that sounds a little overly simplistic- that a country with our economic mess just really needs to hear each other. No doubt it feels a little touchy feely. And of course what we also need is to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizen's United and making it clear that a corporation is not a person and money does not equal free speech. And of course we need to erase the lobby culture in Washington D.C. that ensures the interests of a few are more important than the many. And of course we need to establish an election system that keeps all candidates on equal footing so that we can pick our leaders by their true abilities rather than by their checkbooks. But believe me, if we are going to do any of that, we need to hear each other first.

We need to share our stories, share our hopes and dreams and share our fears too. We need to get real with each other and stop assuming that we are the caricatures of thought and opinion your local news keeps assuring you we all are. And when we do this we will find that we all have more values in common than we think. Because at the end of the day most people want the same thing, the ability to prosper from our own hard work and protection from the interference of those that are bigger than us and have other financial interests.

General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

Anyone who has been to a General Assembly at one of the Occupy encampments that has sprung up around the country probably knows where I am going with this. Because there happens to be an amazing place to work on just these listening skills, and it is a GA near you.

Most of the General Assemblies I have attended at Occupy Oakland have started slow. The online schedule claims that GA's begin at 6 PM every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, but like my congregation, things tend to be a lot more fluid. I usually arrive early, as punctuality is a big part of my rhythm, and often when I show up it looks doubtful that what I see will become a GA. Because even by about ten minutes of 6 PM the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa Plaza is mostly empty, with at best a few dozen people standing around in small groups talking. But then, without fail, we always easily reach the required minimum for a quorum of 100 by a few minutes after six. And, like the sun rising, it is always impossible to pin point the moment it goes from black to gray to light, I never see a large crowd of people arrive, but within thirty minutes we usually have hundreds in attendance and by 7 PM it is not rare to be over a thousand.

And because of this rolling start, I have noticed another common pattern. Often the General Assembly will spend the first hour or so using the People's Mic before switching to the electric PA/Sound system later that uses a noisy generator. Every time we make the switch, the entire energy of the assembly changes. Nothing holds the group together better than the People's Mic. It is why I say that I heart the People's Mic. I truly love it and I am starting to believe it is the sound of people hearing each other for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of the Peoples Mic it is a process a crowd can use to ensure everyone hears the speaker when they do not have an electric amplification system. Basically the main speaker changes their speech pattern to shorter sentences and pauses after speaking each distinct sentence so that it can be repeated by everyone that is close and can hear, which is then in turn heard by the next furthest group and repeated and so on until it reaches those furthest from the speaker.

I love it for many reasons, and if you have never heard it in action, the sound is worth a GA attendance all by itself. If you stand a little distance from the GA you hear a slow gentle wave of thought that begins in the middle and slowly rolls out to the sides. Here is a video that captures it pretty well:

A Great Example of "The People's Mic"

But the main reason that I heart the People's Mic is because it really forces us to listen to what some else is saying. The magic comes from the process of repeating each others words. It forces everyone to listen deeply in order to be able to repeat, and then because you say another person's words with your own voice, you own them in a different way. You are forced to engage with them actively and even though only one person is talking, it is immediately a dialogue. And when you speak another person's words you are more likely to consider their position, something that our current climate makes difficult, if not impossible.

It has already become popular to push the false narrative that the Occupy movement lacks a focus. It is important to note that even in its anti-propaganda the media misses the entire point of the movement. Because it is in the process of gathering and talking to each other that Occupy will best contribute to a better future for democracy in America and beyond. We may very well push this country to accomplish some specific and quantifiable changes like overturning Citizens United, but these little incubators of democracy, that echo with the sound of people hearing each other for the first time, will be Occupy's greatest legacy.

So please, step up to the Peoples Mic and add your voice to the conversation.


Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why I was arrested at Occupy Oakland

By now you have likely seen pictures and videos, read articles from professionals who were far away, and the few bloggers and members of the media brave enough to join us at the Occupy Oakland encampment. But now it is my turn to tell you why I was a part of this story.

To begin with, this arrest is far from an end-in-itself, but rather is a small piece of a larger strategy. To this point, the interfaith clergy group I am working with in Oakland has been very much on the periphery of the Occupy camp both physically and intellectually. That is to say, our tent presence existed on the outskirts of the camp, and we sought to be a support of what was, rather than a force to help create what could be. We thought it best to let the movement indicate to us what it needed, rather than to dictate the terms of our involvement, which would begin and end with a commitment to non-violence. We sought this advisory rather than leadership role out of good intentions, but I am now convinced we were wrong, and our actions on Sunday night/Monday morning were the beginning of this correction.

As you have heard, the number of arrests was very low - only 32. There had been between five and eight hundred at the camp with us when the raid began, but the police masterfully corralled the vast majority out of the camp and onto a main thoroughfare, where they were able to push them right out of downtown without needing to arrest them. It was a brilliant strategy that greatly reduced the numbers of arrests. Most of those still there intended to register their anger through their arrest, and the police found a way to deny them that possibility.

Which left the clergy alone in camp, literally holding the spiritual center of our village.
And now it is time for us to lead from this same place. Now, do not get me wrong. I understand that this is a leaderless movement, and we certainly do not want to change that. But the faith voice, and our history of non-violent resistance needs to be a louder and more assertive aspect of this conversation, and it is our responsibility to make sure that happens.

And that is what the Occupy movement truly is, a conversation, and that is why I was willing to offer my body to be arrested. I strongly believe that this conversation must happen and that the public square of every city, town and village of this country and planet needs to be involved. And this is no small thing, this conversation, that is, unless you are happy with the status quo. This conversation represents our best hope of change, because once we are united, we are unstoppable.

The symbol of this movement is the tent, but let us not get our symbols confused with our strategy and intentions. This movement is at its essence an idea. And that idea is that we are only powerless so long as we are disconnected. But as we gather and share our stories before the media has a chance to shape and re-shape them, we recognize our common humanity and let go of our fears. Connected, we are powerful and can move mountains.
But many people remain on the sidelines, and for this to succeed it is essential that this changes. I think one thing that has kept many people from getting involved is that they are not sure what this movement is, what it stands for, and where it is going. From my personal experience, this cannot be explained, only experienced. This movement is open source. It is freely available to any who wish to engage with it. But you must take the first step.

I know so many of us have been disenfranchised. We believe even our right to vote for those that represent us is meaningless. Well, Occupy is the antidote to that feeling of impotence. Here is your platform. It is the General Assembly near you. Unlike most things in modern American life, it cannot be consumed from the comfort of your couch. It will not come sterilized and pre-packaged like the meat you buy in the grocery store. It is not safe, and neutered and stripped of meaning like a sound bite on TV. It is real and raw and very much still being formed and focused. And it desperately needs your voice.

Please go to a General Assembly near you and hear and see for yourself, I promise you will be transformed by your efforts.

Peace - Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Friday, November 4, 2011

Flip the violence narrative

As a clergy person who has spent many days down at Occupy Oakland over the past three weeks, I am so saddened to see the true peaceful nature of this movement ignored and minimized and the continued focus on the small and regrettable acts of violence from an unaffiliated group of a few dozen people.

For so long, we have all been mindlessly complicit in the violence the system we participate in necessitates. And now, just as we are making real progress with the Occupy movement on unifying our voices and trying to change the system that allows this, we are being told that the real problem is this one spasm of violence from this tiny group of unaffiliated vandals.

I ask you this: Where is the violence really coming from?

The idea that Occupy Oakland, or the Occupy movement itself, is the source of the violence is ridiculous. But please do let me tell you about the violence we all are very much responsible for, so long as we continue to allow it in our name and on our dime:

I am talking about the violence of war, in Iraq and Afghanistan and the permanent war machine we continue to feed an obscene percentage of our tax money.

I am talking about the violence of poverty that has been done by Wells Fargo and Bank of America when they illegally foreclosed on the very people who paid for their bailout and golden parachutes.

I am talking about the violence of environmental abuse that has been done to the Gulf of Mexico and countless other natural treasures by BP, Exxon, Shell and Mobil to feed our cheap fossil fuels addiction.

And it is this violence that the Occupy movement is trying to address.

And now, just as we are beginning to wake up to our power and our ability to stop this insanity, we are being sold the false narrative that the violence is coming from the Occupy movement. Because we must be kept divided. Because they are starting to take notice of this movement as a threat.

But the idea that the violence is coming from Occupy would only be laughable if the stakes were not so high. Because this is our moment. And these moments do not come along all the time. But right now that once-in-a-generation window is open, the entire people of the earth are suddenly and powerfully becoming reunited with each other. We are waking up to the truth that we are not on an unstoppable road to division and destruction. It's actually quite the opposite. We can change the narrative. This spring we witnessed one Arab country after another removing their longstanding dictators in an unprecedented struggle for freedom. This sudden change was made possible by our new technological powers of democratized social media. And as more and more of the worlds' 99% are united by this new technology and the illusion of the power maintained by the few over the many is exposed for the lie it is, their power can fall just as quickly

And we must begin by reversing the narrative that is being told about this movement. This movement is not creating the violence, just as Martin Luther King Jr. taught through his non-violent work: as more tension is created, the underlying violence of the system is brought to the surface. And it is ugly. And those in power, those threatened by the upset of the status quo will call the movement that is causing this stress to the system all kinds of ugly names. They will slur us and blame us for the system's violence. Because the few benefiting from our division are desperate and finally feeling their unrealistic grip on power slipping. But we must remember, it is their violence. And it must be surfaced to the healing power of the light of day.

And we must start telling this truth, that this violence is not directly caused by Occupy. It is merely bringing it to the surface so that it may finally be dealt with. So that we can build a system grounded on the principles of justice rather than this false promise we have been enabling like an abusive codependent relationship for too long. It is time to finally live up to the promise of our greatest values; that we truly are all created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights and that amongst these are the freedom to pursue a life of liberty and happiness, a dream that has become an impossible one for far too many.

So please, join me in flipping the violence narrative. The next time you hear someone say that the Occupy movement is creating violence, remind them where that violence is really coming from. And then invite them to join you in believing in a better way.

Peace - Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Update: This is the kind of violence in Oakland we need to be worried about: 2nd Vet beaten by Oakland Police.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy: The Next Step is You!

Since the incredible events of yesterday's successful general strike in Oakland, many have asked me and others what the next step is. And in keeping with the core values of this leaderless movement, the best answer that I or anyone else can give you is this: The next step is you.

The next step is you: organizing, joining your local Occupy general assembly, thinking and talking with your friends and neighbors, giving yourself permission to stop believing in your powerlessness. It is you: Turning off the horrible reality TV that glamorizes the pornography of fake celebrity marriage and joining a movement that stands on the side of love, wherever and whenever it is needed. It is you: Moving your checking and savings account from the big (and yes, I know convenient!) bank and putting your money in a local credit union. It is you: Supporting organized labor, because however imperfect, they are the most organized mouthpiece of the 99%. It is you: Getting involved in whatever way you can, because once our voices are all united, we are truly unstoppable.
Today, I awoke with a big and very satisfied smile on my face, because I was at Occupy Oakland for 12 hours yesterday and every single moment of it was profound, unifying and peaceful. I helped organize and run an Interfaith Tent with programming all day. We led meditations, prayers, interfaith worship services, conversations, and had lots of music. We served the spiritual needs of thousands who were grateful for our presence.

And we were surrounded by the most diverse and peaceful group of people you have ever imagined. The Teamsters were there, and so was Code Pink. The camp has a section called "the intifada" which is full of young and proud American Muslim's eager to be a part of this moment. There was a free store and kitchen with enough water, fresh veggies, pasta and fruit for the masses, asking nothing in return. One union set up a barbecue and served free hot dogs, hamburgers, beans and potato salad to thousands. There was an incredible "kids zone" with books, thousands of Lego pieces, blocks and games. And of course many a liberal arts degree was put to good use (about the only way in this economy!) on the plethora of witty signs and banners that decorated our liberated plaza.
But then that smile that I awoke with quickly disappeared when I tuned into my local NPR station to hear this morning's Forum with Michael Krasny. It was then that I learned that late at night, hours after the day of peace and unity that culminated in a completely non-violent shut down of the 5th largest port in the world, a few dozen vandals had created a situation that inevitably turned into a violent confrontation with the police. And now that was the story that the media, even the supposedly progressive KQED, was choosing to focus on.

So, I followed my own advice, and I got involved. I picked up my phone and called the show and asked to speak with Michael on the air. And, it is amazing what happens when you stop thinking about what is possible and what is not. The next thing I knew I was indeed talking to Michael on air (link to audio here) I come in at the 13:30 mark. And I shared with him my deep disappointment that this was the focus he had chosen for his show. I told him about what I had seen, this day of unity and peace, and that I was sure this was the important story: the actions of the masses, not this disorderly few. He politely thanked me for my call, ended it, and then proceeded to wash his hands of blame.

But the truth is that every one of us is responsible for our sphere of influence. Some have bigger microphones, but all of us can help shape this narrative going forward. Will you choose to stand on the side of apathy and the status quo? Or will you wake up and realize that this is the moment that so many have been crying and praying for? If you need me to make it more clear I will: The revolution has begun, and the next step is you!

Spread the word, be the word. Peace.

- Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Samhain: When the impossible is possible!

I know it is hard to imagine, but for many hundreds of years, this holiday we are about to celebrate was not called Halloween. Right now we take for granted that October 31st means witches and goblins, costumes and candy, pumpkin carving and apple bobbing.

And to some extent, this date has always been about those same themes, but under a different name, and with a different understanding. And today we are going to talk about the pre-Christian history of Halloween and learn about where this tradition comes from.

You have already experienced a little piece of this through the apple ritual that DeAnna lead us all in, the pagan holiday of Samhain existed long before anyone spoke the word Halloween. Paganism is inherently hard to talk about, because it’s really more of a modern way to think and talk about a wide variety and huge diversity of quasi-spiritual and religious communities that existed in Europe before Christianity displaced them.

One of the pagan groups that we know the most about are the Celts from Ireland and they are the pagan community that most scholars believe the Samhain tradition originally derives from, and can even find official records dating it as far back as the 10th century.

Now the first thing one needs to know if they are going to try and understand the pagan belief system is the wheel of the year. This wheel of the year represents the pagan conception of time, and the major difference between the way they thought about time and the way we think about time is that to pagans, time was circular and to us, time is linear.

That is, we talk about things like timelines, that represent the idea of time as a straight line from the beginning of history past the present and points out at the future that we are moving towards. But a pagan understood time to move in a cycle that literally was repeated every year. Each year was not a new year, but yet another trip through the same cycle of the seasons. And the wheel of the year, as they understood it, had eight spokes, spaced at relatively even intervals through out the year, which were marked by community wide festivals. And these eight festivals were broken into two alternating groups, the lesser sabbats and the greater sabbats. And of the four greater sabbats, two in particular were considered the most important, and these were the two that marked the move into either darkness or light.

The holiday of Beltane marks the return to lighter days, but it should be no surprise that today’s celebration, Samhain, marked our descent into darkness. It was the end of the harvest and indeed any food that had yet to be harvested by Oct 31 was left in the fields as a sacrifice to the gods. And because it was the beginning of the descent into darkness, it was also considered to be the Celtic New Year’s Day.

Remember, this was a system built on cycles. Besides the seasons, the other major cycle that marked people’s lives was that of the sun. It made sense that the day was started in darkness and born into light, because that was their experience of the sun rising out of darkness to each morning, and so they postulated that the year’s cycle also began in darkness and was born into the light, rising out of the final day of the cycle, October 31st.

And finally, the reason this celebration on the evening of October 31st was so important was that this special moment of the year starting anew, this first darkness, was not a part of the year’s cycle, this one evening was different, special, it literally existed outside of time. There was the cycle of the seasons, and then there was sawhain. And on Sawhain, since it was a time outside of time, the veil between possibility and impossibility was at its thinnest, so thin it was practically non-existent.

And there were many implications of this thinness, but one was that it was the easiest day of the year to talk with one’s deceased ancestors, especially those that had died in the past year because the pagan’s believed a deceased soul waited in a purgatory like place until Samhain when they could begin the transition to the true afterlife and the thinness of the this night meant a reunion was quite easy. And so tradition had it that if you had lost a family member in the last year you should make a lighted path from the grave of the departed to the family’s house, often gourds were hollowed and carved in order to protect the lights on the path.

Eventually Christianity found its way to northern Europe, with its penchant and skill for digesting and incorporating native celebrations into its own rituals in order to convert new groups to the faith. The common pattern for this process was that the native ritual would continue on in terms of content, but the meaning of the content would be changed to fit Christian teachings. And the movement from Samhain to Halloween is among the most perfect examples of this phenomenon.

Here is what happened. The traditional Christian understanding of death was different form the pagan understanding in that it held that after death a soul went either to heaven or hell. And it was palatable from a Christian perspective to honor the souls that went to heaven, but certainly not those that went to hell. And in Samhain all spirits, no matter how they lived their life, were fair game to be visited and honored, they lacked this two-tiered afterlife system. So the holiday of Samhain, under Christian influence, was re-named or re-branded as: all Hallows Eve. To ‘hallow’ literally means to make holy or sacred. Thus the meaning was changed from the Sawhain tradition of all souls being honored, to just the souls that were sacred, that is, went to heaven.

Besides the name change and the difference in ancestor worship, very little else changed. People continued to view the night as particularly spooky, people continued to carve gourds and put candles in them. And as the holiday grew up within Christianity, sometime around the 16th century people began carving turnips, placing candles inside of them, and dressing up, or guising as evil spirits. They would go door to door and in order to protect their houses from these evil spirits, treats would be presented to them. So all the same themes were still present, but the focus shifted from celebrating all ancestors to celebrating the saints and fearing the sinners. Same content, new meaning. The process was complete.

And in that ritual switcheroo, that these days we would probably call misappropriation, we lost the original meaning of this day, that it represented this special moment, outside of time, where the boundary between the possible and the impossible were so thin that they were permeable. What would it mean if we still believed this? If we approached this holiday as a time to think about the impossible things that we would like to accomplish in the coming year?

I hear so often how impossible it is to make the kind of change so many of us think our planet desperately needs. And I am a big believer in the idea that if you ask for your limitations, they will be yours. So, this continued reminder of Samhain, that sometimes the universe is ripe for impossibility to break through, is one I think we need to find a way back to.

And I have to say, if there were a time in the 35 years that I have been walking this earth that feels like it is a time of thinness between the impossible and the possible, it is right now. We are living some truly remarkable days right now. Entire countries that have spent decades being told that freedom was impossible, have stopped believing that narrative and taken sudden and decisive steps in a new direction. And here, in our own democratic experiment of the United States, citizens have stopped believing that making a real change to the direction of our country was impossible. These are truly remarkable times we are living in.

And I want to invite you, tomorrow evening, when the last sliver of light has set on this Celtic year, and the darkness from which a new year can be born fully descends on you, and you are in that special time outside of time, to allow your impossible to cross over into this world of the possible. Stop believing in whatever limitations you have for too long saddled yourself with, and take a look at the year ahead of you for just one night with an eye towards accomplishing the impossible. Because why bother with anything less? Ashe and may it be so.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Where does Occupy go from here?

After spending another peaceful evening at Occupy Oakland, this time with my family, I couldn't help but think about where this is all going.  I know many people are asking how this relatively unformed movement can take the next step to becoming a slightly more organized and focused version of itself.  And I think the weather is about to force a change of strategy anyway.  Some hearty souls may indeed brave the long cold winter occupying public land, and more power to them.  But my sincere hope is that the occupy movement can hibernate in the winter, spending those months planning a real strategy for the spring.  So that when the weather once again turns warm and welcoming and the masses we need to take to the streets are once again willing to do that, we are ready.  And I hope that the work we are doing now, in these public squares, before it gets too cold, is sewing seeds in the fall that will bloom in the spring.

And this movement has already proved its usefulness in at least one major way.  A few shorts weeks ago the conversation in Washington D.C. and on most media outlets was focused on deficit reduction and how much of our countries safety net had to be cut to accomplish that.  And now, thanks to Occupy Wall St and all the Occupy sites, that conversation has flipped 180 degrees.  Now the narrative is focused on the economic imbalances of our current system and how to address the deficit through righting these inequalities.  It is essentially the same conversation but with an entirely different focus and we have no one but the Occupy movement to thank for that.

At the same time it is a fair critique to say that this movement would be a more effective change agent in the long run if it can find a more finely tuned focus.  My hope is that focus is at least partly about how to rebuild the regulatory infrastructure that was dismantled in the 1980's and had for many decades effectively kept the majority of the greedy and destructive impulses of the capitalistic system in check.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, it is my role to remind people that they may love capitalism, but capitalism does not love you back.  Capitalism can serve us as a people well.  It clearly helps motivate and stimulate innovation to have an economic system that rewards the people who create that innovation and value.  But just as it is important to innovate, and to put a man on the moon, it is even more important to feed and take care of every man, woman and child on planet earth.  And although we have the resources to accomplish that, we do not have the same motivation because our economic model is disinterested in that outcome.

I am not proposing that we abandon capitalism.  But I am saying that since we have an economic model that is inherently disinterested in something as essential as our well-being, then we must enforce these morals through legislation and/or regulation.

I will end this post with a short video I shot last night at the General Assembly at Occupy Oakland, hope to see you all at a GA soon!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My first taste of democracy!

I'll be honest, I went for the drama. Sure, I am clergy, a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and I very much wanted to be at Occupy Oakland last night as a witness, as a voice of calm and peace, and to learn how I could help breathe this fledgling movement into life.

But as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I am always one who runs towards a rock fight, and not away as any sane person would. And so the videos of my fellow Americans being beaten up, tear gassed and harassed by Oakland police officers from the night before was front and center on my mind as I made my way to Frank Ogawa Plaza Oscar Grant Plaza.

But what I experienced was something so much deeper and meaningful than I could have ever expected. For the first time in my life as an American I experienced true democracy. The work had gotten underway about an hour before I arrived. Thousands of people gathered peacefully, centered around a raised area where one person at a time could speak. And since the crowd was far larger than the small speaker system could reach, all the words were repeated by those close enough to hear, and so they radiated out in a slow gentle echo.

At the beginning of this evening General Assembly a proposal had been brought to the assembled group: To call a general strike and walk out in Oakland the following Wednesday, November 2, 2011. For the next several hours we debated the proposal, sometimes as a group of 3,000 and at other times in small groups of 20. By 9:30 PM we were ready to vote, so we once again broke into our small groups, exchanged a few last thoughts, and voted. Here is a video I shot of that exciting moment:

Although a few people in my group voted against the proposal, it ended up easily passing the 90% threshold we had set, and people excitedly expressed their approval. It was like nothing I had ever been a part of before. Thousands of us had suddenly pulled back the curtain of illusion that what we do in America is democracy. Suddenly the layers of campaign ads, lobbyist, pork bills, and crooked politicians seemed completely ridiculous and exposed for the corporate lie it is.

There were other great moments too. Re-connecting with old friends who materialized out of the darkness, the announcments of solidarity from Occupy Wall St (who sent Occupy Oakland a $20,000 donation last night!) and Tahrir Sq and the "We are Tahrir Sq" chant that we took up afterwards. But it was that first taste of true democracy that I will continue to carry with me. It has changed me in a very real way that I have no doubt will continue to unfold in the coming days and months.

And so I call to each and every one of you to join a General Assembly at the nearest occupy site to where you live. Spend one evening with these people, hearing their stories and most importantly partaking in the sweet liberating power of real democracy. Because nothing should scare Washington D.C. and the 1% more than the 99% truly waking up to our power.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Memories of the Future

Originally delivered on 9/25/11
at Mission Peak UU
Fremont, CA.

My relationship with my dog Buddy was truly love at first sight. I had been following his litter online for weeks through the website of a local bay-area rescue group called Second Chance. Finally they announced that this particular group of puppies would be available for adoption at an event the next Saturday. When I arrived I saw that they had created a pen in the middle of the space that was just chock full of puppies. Never had I seen such an overpoweringly adorable site, as I watched several litters of puppies - easily over 20 dogs in total - scampering around, wrestling and playing with each other. I knew that to enter that arena would be to enter into a life-long relationship, because with the power of cute spilling out of that pen, I knew that no one could possibly leave empty-handed.

So, I waded in and sat down towards the middle of the circus. And - this may be a surprise - but for the first time it dawned on me that I was going to have to make an actual choice, a decision between all these amazing dogs. It hadn't occurred to me to think this part through ahead of time: how was one to pick between so many adorable options?

Just as this moment of anxiety began to descend on me, so did Buddy. He simply plopped down on my lap, rolled over onto his back and presented me his belly. I instinctively began scratching his little pink fuzzy stomach and within seconds he was napping on me and I was head over heels in love.

It has now been over eight years since that August afternoon in Marin and I have never regretted bringing Buddy into my life, not for one second. Buddy is my first dog, as I grew up in a cat home. And I know there will likely be other dogs in my life. There already is one more, as I gained Stella along with my wife Nicole. But I know none will ever be like this one. Buddy truly is my best non-human friend, and he is pretty high on the list even when humans are included. Through all of the ups and downs of the last eight years of my life, Buddy has been by my side, just simply loving me. We have traveled through dozens of states together, climbed mountains, swum in lakes, walked on countless beaches, and moved across country together 4 times. His unconditional love is a gift that I will never stop being grateful for. I could quite easily spend the next hour talking about what a wonderful aspect of my life Buddy is, but we are here to talk about all animals, not just my companion.

I suspect that many of you can relate to what I am talking about. For you, it might be a different creature, one with more legs or fewer, one with more fur or less, one that slithers or crawls or swims. So many of us have meaningful relationships with animals that we never get to speak one word to, and there is good reason for that.

Our relationships with our animal friends do so many important things for us. One is that they allow us to map ourselves right on top of them, imagining them in our image and thus connecting with them through our shared understanding of being alike. Another is that they model to us a completely different way to live, because in one very essential way animals are completely different from humans. I always suspected we were different in this way, but it was confirmed for me a few months ago by an interview I heard on NPR. I was listening to Ira Flatow on Science Friday as he interviewed neurologist Antonio Damasio about his new book on human consciousness entitled Self Comes to Mind. At one point Ira asked Prof. Damasio if we should expect animals to have consciousness as well, and his response was that they do, but that it is different from human consciousness in a key way.

In his words: "It's perfectly obvious that it is not going to be a consciousness of the kind we have in terms of scope, because animals will have a limited amount of what I call the autobiographical self, which you and I have in spades, and which allows us to have a full sense of the narrative arc of our life from beginning to where we are today, and something quite unique to humans, I think: the possibility of having already a sense of what the future may be.

I can't imagine that your dog is going to be very worried about Christmas presents or what it's going to do for vacations, but some of us are. We have a plan of what we're going to do tonight or over the weekend. That plan is in fact our anticipated future. We have made plans. We have revised plans. And more important than all of that, we have committed those plans to memory, so that we can, in an almost paradoxical way, say that we have memories of the future. And our present in our consciousness is constantly placed sort of instant-by-instant between the lived past and the anticipated future that we're constructing right now."

As I heard these words coming through my radio, one piece of that last sentence just jumped right out at me: we have memories of the future, and animals do not. Wow! What an enormous difference that is.

Buddhism and many spiritual systems talk about this human phenomenon - that we invest in outcomes that are far from guaranteed. Inasmuch as these plans are what enable us to do and be all the amazing things we humans have done and been, it is also a huge part of the cause of our suffering. This is the core of so much of our human anxiety. Yet our animal friends live, it would appear, completely devoid of that.

My dog Buddy could hardly be called a Zen Master, and he is certainly not devoid of anxiety. Although he has spent thousands of hours trying to unwrap the koan of the tennis ball, he definitely gets anxious. But his anxiety is always caused by forces outside of his control. Basically it is caused by wondering when he will be fed and when I, his master, will come home. That is about it. So as long as he is fed and basically aware of where I am, he is good to go. And according to Prof. Damasio, rather than being busy dreaming of an uncertain future, he is completely living in this present moment.

This concept of living in the moment is indeed the antidote prescribed by most spiritual systems that see this attachment to outcomes as the root cause of suffering. But, as so many of us know from firsthand experience, this is much easier said than done. I think it is fair to say that none of us will achieve the level of mastery that our pets display. But they really can be very helpful in moving us towards the goal.

One of the major ways my life has changed because of having Buddy in it, is that he forces me to periodically stop thinking, caring and doing all of the things I want to focus on so that I can take him on a walk. This means stepping away from the TV and computer; this means not returning emails or reading a book. When I am out walking with Buddy I am forced back into the present moment, one footstep at a time. Of course if one is going to be out walking, it might as well be somewhere beautiful. Nicole and I always make it a top priority whenever we move somewhere new to quickly learn all the best places to take our dogs. And between Chabot and Garin and the amazing regional park system, we are at no loss for options around here.

I often have some of my most incredible moments of truly being aware and in relationship with the moment I actually inhabit when I am out on these walks. Of course, not every animal lover is a dog lover like me. Nonetheless, any relationship with an animal has similar opportunities to stop thinking about ourselves - and more importantly to stop thinking about our memories of the future - and to just be in the present moment with this lovely creature that is so different from how we are. I think that, in the end, this is a huge part of why we have invited animals into our homes - because of this amazing reminder and connection they can be for us of this other way of being.

The Blessing of the Animals service is traditionally about bestowing our blessings upon the animals, but after hearing Prof. Damasio, it sounds to me like we should be much more focused on the blessing that our animals bestow upon us.

About 30 minutes after this service concludes, we will have a wonderful service outside when I will bless our animal friends, one by one, as they deserve. What I would like to do now is for all of us to have an opportunity to be aware of how they bless us.

I would first invite you to take a few moments in silence to think of an animal that you have loved. It may be a pet, it may be your spirit guide, a bird that frequents your backyard feeder, a favorite stuffed animal, or cartoon character, or some other creature that you have shared time with on your journey. Remember what it was like to play with your friend, to feed it and care for it, and to know that it loved you. In the mystery of the silence to come thank your friend and know they will be with you forever. If you feel so moved, please come forward and leave a picture, or memento on our altar, and/or write their name in one of the books and I will include it in the blessing that follows the silence.

Silence... Ring the bell...

With all the energy that is in this room, all the energy we have created here together today, all the energy of creation that animates us all and that wordlessly guides our evolution from form to form, I ask that you bless all of the animals that we love, those that we have represented here on the alter, those that are with us in our minds and in our hearts, those animals that we have known and loved, those that we have required to make the ultimate sacrifice so that our bodies may be nourished; all the animals of the sky, of the ground, those that climb and those that slither. From the depths of the great oceans to the peaks of the highest mountains, we recognize our animal friends as created beings, just like us, with inherent worth and dignity. We give thanks for all that animals do for us and pledge to work harder to protect them in the future.

May it be so. Ashe.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Poured together or blown apart?

*This is the message I wrote for worship at my Congregation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/11. It may seem strange to any non-Unitarian Universalist who read this that I begin by talking about water. This is because on the first Sunday after labor day most UU congregations celebrate a service called the Water Communion. More info on this ritual can be found here.


When I have worked up a good thirst, and take a big gulp of water, it feels like the cleanest and purest taste there is. And on one hand it is, since most water we drink has been through both natural and human engineered processes to filter it before it reaches our mouths. But on the other hand, your mouth is hardly the first place that water has been. Besides waters journey through drains, down pipes, along rivers, up streams, around oceans, into the clouds, down again as rain drops, suspended in ice, there is also a good chance you are not even the first creature to drink those molecules of water. You see, earth is like a terrarium, one of those glass walled environments many of us have seen in a science classroom or even had in our homes. That is, earth is a closed system, and every drop of water we have has been with us for roughly 4.6 billion years and just continues to be recycled, so it is not impossible to believe that you have shared a drink with Genghis Kahn, or Elvis or Einstein.

Water is, besides birth and death, the thread that connects us all. Not only would organic life not exist without it in the first place, but it likewise does not last long when it is withheld. Our bodies are between 55-70% water, and that gentle balance, a reminder of our oceanic beginning contained within each of us, is extremely important to maintain. And water provides us with an incredible illustration of what true unity is, when one molecule of water seamlessly unites with others as they are poured together. That kind of perfect unity is a high bar for we complicated and multifaceted creatures, but imagine if just for a minute we human beings were made aware that we are in actuality every bit as connected as those molecules of water.

And that is one of the main reasons we use water in this ceremony every year, in order to remind us of the truth of our connectedness. This pouring together of our hopes and dreams, of our sorrows and pains, of our unspoken truths and the aspirations we wear on our sleeves, is a reminder that we are in this together. And it is also a reminder that like the water we pour together, we also come from many different sources, yet still choose to be in community with each other. We choose to once again be poured together into the vessel we call Mission Peak. We UU’s see our differences as a source of strength, rather than as a weakness, and that makes us very counter culture.

And it also makes us very important, because our world desperately needs this reminder. Every once in a while the curtain of illusion blows back for but a moment, and we are all in touch with this truth, but it is all too rare and fleeting. And for many, September 11, 2001 was just such moment. That was certainly the emotion I was most struck with on that clear blue sky day. I remember it very clearly, after finally ripping myself away from the misery being repeated ad nauseum on the television that morning of our innocence being blown apart by airplanes streaming through the sky, my roommate and I went out to take a walk. We had both just moved to Berkeley, having arrived from the east coast less than 10 days earlier we felt light years away from the friends and family we had just left behind in Boston, NYC and D.C.

Unable to reach anyone by phone or email, we felt beyond disconnected, we felt hopeless, and scared and utterly alone. But within minutes of leaving our apartment that feeling began to change. As we walked up University Ave and headed towards Cal campus I began to feel something I had never experienced before.

Eye contact. From everyone. Every single person who passed us on the street looked us right in the eyes. And it was the warmest connection with strangers I had ever felt. It was obvious to me what those eyes were meant to communicate, no words were necessary, I read them loud and clear: “I know we are in this together,” they said.

And for one amazing week, under airplaneless skies, I truly felt that. I felt connected not just to my family and friends, but to so many millions of other people. And I thought, what an incredible moment in history, what a positive and wonderful place to work from. In that moment, anything seemed possible. Please, I pleaded with the universe, may there be someone, somewhere who can help us build on this connection, some great orator who can remind us that it is not merely with our fellow Americans that we are connected, but with all of creation. We needed a great poet or spiritual leader who would remind us that we now lived in a time when the illusion of isolation was fully exposed and the truth of the interconnected web was the reality of the future.

But as we all know, this was not the message we were told by our leaders. Far from ever being asked to examine our own selves, instead of being required to make a sacrifice for the betterment of all, we were told to go shopping. We were told to warm up our credit cards and to empty our saving accounts, because it was essential to save our economy, our souls would be left for another time. And then, shortly thereafter, we were told to support a war, or our very patriotism would be questioned. And instead of being poured together, we were once again blown apart. And, like a flower that blooms once or twice in a human lifetime, the spirit of connectedness and possibility that lay dormant within us all, once again withered away and disappeared below the surface.

But hope did not die that day. It still hibernates within every man, woman and child. I strongly believe that within all of life lives the natural yearning to love and to be loved, to see the other in our own hearts, to make reassuring eye contact with perfect strangers on the street. And that is exactly why what we do here every Sunday matters. Because, unfortunately, there is no great leader who will move this world towards the truth of our connection, there is no one single person who can change the trajectory of 6 billion humans. But rather we must each wake up to this truth, and by living within this reality, we must help others wake up to it as well. It is up to us. It is our voices that must be raised, our bodies that must stand on the front lines of this struggle.

And that is why we return once again to our annual water communion. In this ritual we seek to counter the forces that would seek to divide us, to call to that restless force within us that, when awakened, is as unstoppable as water. We once again pour together our very beings as we struggle to defy all that would blow as apart. May it be so, ashe.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Snarky Minister? Please stop insulting me.

An open letter to Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel,

My name is Jeremy Nickel and I am a minister in the Unitarian Universalist movement, serving a congregation in California. Recently I came across the devotional you penned and posted to the UCC denominational website, entitled “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” At the heart of your devotional is an important message, that “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.” A sentiment I completely agree with and think is at the heart of our call as liberal religious clergy. But for some reason, you chose to wrap this important message in a snarky, mean spirited diatribe against those that identify as Spiritual but not Religious. And as someone who himself became an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister to provide a welcome to this exact group, it feels important to respond to your negativity now, before this divide you have carelessly created becomes a chasm.

Now, one might think that after identifying the insight that spirituality is greatly enhanced by community and accountability, that you would then try and create a bridge between your resource rich tradition and these spiritual seekers. But shockingly you go on to do the exact opposite when you dismiss the Spiritual but not Religious as being “comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.” Wow. How is that for a welcome to the fastest growing group of seekers in America according to countless polls including the 2008 Pew Research Poll on Religion in America? In one sentence you manage to perfectly encapsulate all that repels these people from our congregations. Unnecessarily mean, judgmental, privileged, and just flat out wrong.

I certainly agree that this narcissistic tendency exists in society, but I am afraid I must remind you that it is every bit as prevalent in our churches as it is elsewhere. I wonder why you feel the need to create this straw man of the Spiritual but not Religious, a group you admit you only know from forced airplane interactions, when we have so much work to do in our own spiritual homes?

So Rev. Daniel, let me tell you just a little bit about this group of people whose sacred stories bored you. You see, I have personally always felt that having someone share their spiritual journey with me is one of the most sacred interactions we can have. So I spent a year interviewing the Spiritual but not Religious for a Master's thesis, and trust me, it was far from boring. And what I learned from speaking with hundreds who identify this way, is that they could not be more different than how you have imagined them.

Far from finding ancient religions dull, they delight in studying and reading theology, philosophy and history wherever they can find it in a non-hypocritical presentation. And while many of us do appreciate a good sunset, we are far from this one-dimensional caricature you created. You see, these folks are on genuine spiritual journeys, and told me over and over again that they would love to find a community that could actually support them in their search. One that offered resources without the close-mindedness and 18th century worship so many of our congregations stubbornly continue to provide. And they actually have found plenty of communities that do provide some level of guidance and accountability. Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.

It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental. I can’t offer an apology on your behalf to the millions you have offended and made to feel unwelcome, but I can offer them a very warm and very real invitation to my congregation. Far from your rejection of the Spiritual but not Religious, Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country would love to meet you, to hear your stories about sunsets, double rainbows, double helix's and everything and anything in-between. We are a non-creedal movement that welcomes people without judgment no matter where they are on their spiritual journey. Our communities are made up of believers, non-believers, atheists, agnostics, pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, seekers, gay, straight, queer, transgendered, young and old, black, white, brown and every other beautiful hue and everyone else too, the only person we are missing is you. And in that respect, I couldn’t agree with you more Rev. Daniel. Our communities are living proof that you don’t have to think alike to love alike and that all of our spiritual journeys are enhanced by being in community and being held accountable by others. Rev. Daniel, your reputation assures me this devotional is not a good representation of who you really are. I hope this experience helps you realize that your fleeting interactions with the Spiritual but not Religious is likewise not a good representation of who they are.


Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel