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Open Letter to President George W. Bush

by Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Service at UUCSS on November 7, 2004

Opening Words

A Litany of Unity
-- Refrain/ Poem by Rumi
Litany by the Rev. Meg A. Riley, Director, Advocacy and Witness, UUA

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are young and old, married and single. We are grandparents, parents, and
child-free by choice and with broken hearts, we are gay and asexual, bisexual and straight.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are Buddhists and humanists, theists and agnostics. We are Christians and Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, pagans and fifth-generation Universalists. We find all of these labels confining.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are Republicans and Democrats, non-voters and third party activists

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are pacifists and just-war proponents, conscientious objectors and enlisted personnel

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are angry and grievous, fearful and grateful to be alive

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.
We have confidence in our government; we have lived in democracy's shadow,
Our ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock, our ancestors' bones testify to our suffering

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We pray to God for comfort, we are discomforted by the idea of God. We turn to God for solace; we turn away from God in anger.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are street activists and mediators, headline-scanners and media junkies

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are sure of what must be done, nothing makes sense to us as a clear path of action, we are vigilantly watching what comes next and we have lowered our eyes from the horizon

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are risk-takers and conflict avoiders, group processors and lone rangers

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

The American flag gives us strength; the American flag makes us afraid; the American flag excludes us; the American flag makes us feel united as a people; we only fly earth flags

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.

We are Unitarian Universalist communities. Our love for each other is our strength; living our own truth and yet honoring each others' makes that love real.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

Reading

The Destiny of Our Democracy
Statement from the Rev. William G. Sinkford, President, Unitarian Universalist Association (November 3, 2004 - Boston, MA)


The democratic process is an act of faith: not faith that any one point of view will prevail, but faith that the will of the people will point us toward the Beloved Community. And in this national election, "we the people" have spoken, millions more of us than ever before. Unitarian Universalists lived out our faith by registering tens of thousands of new voters. We can rightly be proud of our commitment to this democracy. We stood clearly and proudly on the side of love.

Not only is democracy an act of faith, it is an imperfect process. This national election, like the last, showed us how far we have to go to enfranchise all of our people. But I take great hope from the relationships our congregations developed in this work.

But Unitarian Universalism is liberal religion, not liberal politics.

Today, while so many celebrate and so many grieve, I hope that Unitarian Universalists will hold fast to our calling. Political sound bites cannot contain it. Party designations do not describe it. Few votes were cast yesterday without reservations in the heart. Our congregations need to be religious homes where the reality of both joy and grief, certainty and uncertainty, can be present.

In 1964, the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn wrote a book titled "Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age." Today, Jack reminded me that all ages are illiberal. And, thus, in every age, it is the role of liberal religion to offer a Gospel of openness, of healing and of hope. Our profession of faith is that the arc of the universe is long, but, with our commitment, it bends toward justice.

I extend my personal best wishes to President Bush and pray that his leadership will move this nation toward healing. Unitarian Universalists will do our part. We cannot afford to fuel the stridency and divisiveness of this political campaign. Nor can we afford to withdraw. We are an essential part of this body politic. And we will continue our vigilance and our advocacy for the values we hold dear.

There is only one destiny for this nation and its people. May that destiny be one of growing justice and equity in our policies and growing compassion in our hearts.

Sermon

Open Letter to President George W. Bush

All I want to do is put on sweats and go to bed for the next four years. Wake me up – and hopefully everybody else next time – when elections roll around. But that’s not what I’m going to do. Time and again, my natural pettiness of spirit is revealed to me by my vocation – and this is one of those times. The good thing is that my responsibility to you and to our faith calls me to be better than I am, which is beneficial in the long run, though occasionally tiresome in the immediate moment. You’ve heard from me before: we all share some form of ministry here, and so I am not the only one bound to be my best self here, we all are. And this is going to be another one of those times for all of us.

As we know, George W. Bush was re-elected president on Tuesday by a slight but very clear majority in the country, with a voter turnout of record highs. By god, people cared about this election. A UU minister colleague of mine working her local polls on Tuesday kept telling voters as they came through: “Thank you for coming; we want your vote to count!” One African-American man kissed his ballot before handing it in. People stood in long lines for hours. They took time off from work even if they got docked in pay for it. Some people were waiting ‘til past 11pm to cast their vote. People sent in absentee ballots in record numbers and in good time for them to be counted. People went to the necessary lengths to fill out provisional ballots when something about their eligibility was questioned. A large contingent from our Washington church, All- Souls, complete with senior minister, went down to Florida to help with the election there. Both Democrats and Republicans motivated their constituents to new heights of phone calling, registering, mailing, transporting, encouraging and lobbying voters. Signs of both stripes were taken from lawns and public properties, replaced, taken, replaced, taken, replaced. By god, people cared about this election.

The results are in, and they are not what I sought, but also possibly what some of us did seek. President Sinkford’s message gently reminds us that both Republicans and Democrats are Unitarian Universalists. I have already heard a number of stories this week about UU Republicans in this area “outing” themselves to their ministers, but also not, generally, to their congregations and that’s understandable; we often act in UU churches as though we were all Democrats. I cannot preach, and we cannot speak, as though we are all of one mind here; we already know in many ways we are not. We are perhaps more cognizant of, and perhaps even more comfortable with, our theological range than our political range. To the republicans among us – I’m glad you’re here. We’re glad you’re here. I hope you’ll talk with me about what works for you about this president for thoughtful, religious liberal folk like us – perhaps hearing the message from those among us will help us be better able to speak across and about our differences with those with whom we disagree. We all belong here, humanists and theists, gays and straights, elephants and donkeys. That is part of our strength and part of our message of hope for mutual respect and communication and acceptance that we always hold up as our promise for the world.

I can preach of my own concerns and from my own position, believing as always not that everyone who hears me this morning will or should agree with me, but that speaking of what one believes and therefore what one does and how one lives is a perennial question and consideration for all of us, regardless of our political or theological stripe. By this time you will have noticed that my sermon this morning is not about David Brooks’ book Bobos in Paradise. That topic is in the hopper, but will have to wait while we process the election and its significance for us. In reflecting about what to say this morning, I found myself thinking back to my sermon last Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. I went back to it; it was based on this reflection by UU minister Lynn Ungar;

Crab Grass
We've all admired it
even as we've cursed
the matted roots, white fingers
pointing toward new frontiers,
the tangled tapestry stubbornly
weaving the world in place.

Imagine living that way.
Imagine knowing from the ground up
that you are tied to the whole,
that you are undefeatable,
that below the surface
undefinable discoveries
are always taking place.

Don't you think there are
things worth holding on to
with a thousand arms,
ten thousand gripping toes?
Aren't the undaunted
particularly blessed?

Before you deride the faithful
consider carefully
where you will put your roots.

Part of what I said in that sermon was this:
“…as the events of the past year especially unfolded in all their violence and self-righteousness and injustice, I began to despair. Sermons didn’t matter. Marching certainly didn’t matter. Petitions, contributions, prayers, coalitions, letters, nothing, nothing, nothing mattered. There was nothing I could do that would change things. So there seemed no point in doing anything. What was left to do, when nothing made any difference at all? How can a president just ignore the opinions of so many people in his own country and around the world? Doesn’t he owe us at least an acknowledgement? Isn’t he afraid we’ll.... vote? Apparently not…
(Still quoting what I said in January:) Perhaps this is what they call, in 12-step programs, hitting bottom. This year I may have hit bottom. I thought I’d hit bottom in 1980 when we elected Reagan, and then again in 1989 when, in disgust at George Bush senior and the yuppie movement, I left the country for three years. But no, it seems this was bottom. Other UU ministers felt the same. If things continued, we wondered, could we bear to stay here? Where would we go? We could start a UU mission movement just to get ourselves away from US domestic and foreign policy. “First Parish, Mykonos!” my friend Erin suggested. We laughed, but we couldn’t come up with any better alternatives.

Still, we have all stayed, and watched the war unfold, and we see what has gone right and wrong in Iraq and we see the ever-worsening situation between Israel and Palestine and around DC we surf the waves of terrorism alerts from yellow up to orange and down again.... and amidst all the wrongness and stubbornness and selfishness and violence, I felt myself in the belly of the beast, overwhelmed by Leviathan and very, very small.

And then something changed. I don’t know which event it was - it might have been something to do with the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or the Supreme Court’s ruling on Affirmative Action or something Condy Rice or Donald Rumsfeld said...but suddenly how wrong it all is stopped oppressing me and I stopped despairing.”

Those words actually seem naïve now. Now in the wake of Abu Graib and the fiasco that is Fallujah and all the hostages of Al-Zarqawi pleading for their lives, and then their tortuous beheadings on the Internet, and the ever-growing American list of casualties in Iraq, and the many more Iraqi civilians being killed by our liberation, and again now the new conflicts surfacing in Afghanistan where the Taliban still exists and the production of drugs has rocketed into that tormented nation’s primary national product. Now when Senator Allen of Virginia says that cheaper gas is on the way because the defeat of Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle is the "big win" which will make it possible to pass the energy bill and allow for the drilling for oil in Alaska. Now when Allen says the election results send a clear message to Democrats that quote, "obstructionism and petty partisanship is not acceptable to the people of America." This from the party that in Texas forced the restructuring of their districts so drastically, along such Republican, partisan lines, that the Democrats fled for their political lives, holing up in an out-of-state motel to try to stave off the dispersal of their constituencies into isolated impotency. Yeah, it seems naïve now.

But I look at what I wrote after, and that seems about right. “The magnitude of what Unitarian Universalism is up against doesn’t bother me any more. I’m not expecting that a letter I send, or my person at a march, or a prayer I pray or even a sermon I preach is going to make a difference. And I don’t care. The bad things going on are so bad and so enormous that I can’t think small any more. I feel like I have pulled back from a microscope to a telescope and with my telescope I see the red scares of the early 20th century and again under McCarthy, I see the attacks on laborers and unions, I see the resistance and violence towards civil rights, I see the deaths of Dr. King and Malcolm X and the Kennedys and the Rosenbergs, and Nelson Mandela freed and Steven Biko killed and Idi Amin’s reign of terror, and Hitler, and Stalin, and Vaclav Havel freed and running a country, and George W. free and running a country and I realize it’s all that big, and to be demoralized is petty. To expect to make a difference in a march or a day or even a decade - it’s too fast. People give their whole lives and sometimes still they fail.”

My telescope is still working. To that litany I can add the election of Hamid Karzai, not a Taliban leader nor a drug lord, nor a warlord, as president of Afghanistan, in elections where women voted and participated in determining the course of their lives. I can add the resistance of the radical and violent cleric Sadr and his followers in Iraq, and the ongoing uncertainty of the political future of that country. I can add the novels and books on Islam, which people are reading across America to finally begin to acknowledge a faith and forms of culture we have far too long dismissed. I can add our military’s stop-loss policy and the demoralizing effect it is having on our troops. No one needs to tell me or probably anyone, to support our troops; I have not heard a single voice dismiss or disbelieve the courage and fortitude and sacrifice of the troops in working to achieve their mission. Likewise no one needs to tell me that supporting our troops is not the same as accepting the legitimacy of the war in Iraq in the first place. I can add the probable appointment of Supreme Court Justices and the future of the Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and the vulnerability of a woman’s right to choose and of stem cell research and of education and of world relations. My telescope seems to have a panoramic lens.

As I write this sermon, I know the vision of my lens is depressing, but it isn’t stopping me. The degree and clarity of all these issues continues to be freeing. The sweep of human events and history is so huge: it’s not all my job. It’s not all on me, or any of us. And with all the efforts made, the elections results, which oppress me, are not my fault. They are no ones’ fault. This is who we are. This is where we are in history.

Colleagues and I were in a discussion this week about whether the gay marriage initiative in Massachusetts was badly timed. Perhaps it was. But I honestly don’t believe there would ever be a good time for it. Social reform is never welcomed by the status quo. There was no good time to fight slavery. There was no good time to fight for unions or civil rights. There will be no ‘good’ time to fight for the right of gays and lesbians to marry, if good means a quiet time when it will slide unremarkably into the country’s sense of usual ways in America. Change is by its nature not usual, not ho-hum, and the degree to which it causes a ruckus is directly proportional to the degree of the change itself. This is huge change. Twenty years ago, no one I knew was gay. Or let me put that better. I didn’t know anyone I knew was gay. Gays were exotic and beginning to die of AIDS and the whole thing was a scandal, beginning with Rock Hudson. Gay and lesbian characters were not on mainstream television or mainstream film and no straight actor would have risked their career playing a homosexual. Now that is all changed. AIDS is treated, if not beaten, and embraced as a national issue. Gays and lesbians are out in popular culture, known in the public world, part of our lexicon of personalities and concerns in our television and film, and they’re marrying in Massachusetts. It’s a bleeping miracle. And I’ll take it. And I’ll work for it. It is the thing I am proudest of right now for America and for Unitarian Universalism. For too long we have not been the voice we should be, that we have historically been, and now, with the issue of the freedom to marry, we are back, and we even have the honor of the ear – and resistance – of the President of the United States of America.

That’s an example of what we can do when we come together, when we provide a home for our values and beliefs across our differences. We rock the boat. We change the world. Even if equality of opportunity and law, tolerance and welcome to all, peace, justice, even if very little of that happens in my lifetime, a bit of all those ‘equalities, all those imperatives, is mine, and yours, and those bits we can do, we can keep doing and do, and do and do. And they will add up. Clearly it was naïve to expect that an insular and powerful nation, under threat from without, and changing within, would go with the flow and choose risk and vulnerability and multiculturalism and sensitivity and patience and change. That is a UU way, but it is not, yet, the American way. We Unitarians and Universalists have always been ahead of our time. Thank god, thank goodness, again, on many fronts we are ahead of our time and so we have our work cut out for us. For as long as I live, years, decades, half a century, all my days, I will what I can to make the UU way the American way. This election makes our UU task all the clearer and I am going to stick by the inspiration lowly crab grass still affords me, will always afford me. I will weave it into the fabric of my days. Despair will not own me; opposition will not exhaust me. I will never stop and I will never be overwhelmed, though the challenges are great and I am small. That is what the opposition is counting on - that I will be overwhelmed and despair and walk away. That I just got slapped and now I am chastened. Well, I am done thinking and agonizing, and I’ve been slapped before and no doubt will be again. I am still doing. I will take chances. I will even risk offending with my good intentions. I will not let political pressure or the array of challenges crush my spirit or dwarf my time and energy. I will keep trying and my trying will be good and sometimes others will join with me.

Perhaps more even than last January, this is, still, a time for tenacity, almost unthinking, almost unchosen, simple, indefatigable. Tenacity is the blessing available to us, and for it, especially now, I am grateful beyond words. It is a blessing because it lifts me up. It is a blessing because it comes from beyond me and I know not where. It is a blessing because it has become part of me and I know not how. It is a blessing because I am better for it and my soul is renewed and my hope is strengthened and I prayed for it...and one way or another it has come. I do not feel agonized, I do not feel despairing, I do not feel tired, I do not feel uncertain, I feel tenacious.

Dear President Bush,

Congratulations on your re-election. I heard what you said accepting the renewal of your administration about having a duty to serve all Americans. I applaud your commitment to establishing a stable democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and to fighting the war on terrorism, though I don’t agree with your strategy. I’m not at all in agreement with most of your domestic agenda, but that is not the purpose of my writing today, so I’ll save that for another letter.

I heard also a promise from you reach out to me and the 55 million others who voted for Senator Kerry, asking for my support and committing to earn it and deserve my trust. You spoke of the new term as a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation across the lines of party and position that divide us.

I must tell you how little I am inclined to believe you just now. Your words echo what you said 4 years ago as you began your first term as our president. I recall then that you spoke of the even more tightly divided vote as a mandate to work in a bi-partisan mode, and heal divisions between parties. Your leadership in the past four years has shown very little commitment to this promise you made then, and so you certainly will not get any support from me up front. You will indeed have to earn it and I doubt you will, though nothing would please me more than to be entirely wrong about this.

I am a Unitarian Universalist. You may not realize who we are. You may refer to the FBI for some help with this – many of us, particularly many of our ministers, have discovered through the freedom of information act that our work and our faith won us FBI files and surveillance that made illuminating reading later on. We used to participate in the annual prayer breakfast at the White House when Clinton was there, but were not invited back after he left, so I would understand if you’re not clear about us. We are something of a gadfly group of religious liberals who have a this-world approach to living our faith. It may seem ludicrous to suggest that a small, little-known faith should be in your awareness but we have a tradition of making a difference. In fact, we are the ones who put the issue of the freedom to marry on your desk. Most of the plaintiffs who first sued for the right to marry in Massachusetts were supported in those efforts and married on that first blessed day in May by and in Unitarian Universalist churches. The lead plaintiffs, Julie and Hilary Goodridge, were married in our Unitarian Universalist headquarters, by the president of our denomination.

Many of us filled the Mall before your residence with record numbers last year so you were very clear on our commitment to a woman’s right to choose, and the year before to protest the war. We have sent you some letters time and again. We visit our congressmen and senators and send them letters. We are mainstream Americans, generally well-educated and employed, who pay attention to events and think carefully and believe that respect for all people and openness to difference are part of what lifts and informs the human spirit, and part of what offers hope for the future of humanity.

We travel, we write, we lobby, we listen and learn, we congregate to support what we believe and we pay attention. We are not going anywhere. We will be listening to you and you will be hearing from us. I pray for your decisions to be wise and for you to live up to the promise you made to strive to reunite this riven nation. Some of us supported you this time around. Many of us didn’t. Our differences about this will not divide us. For myself as one who worked to elect Senator Kerry, I notice that this was only our first time trying to mount a serious election opposition to some of your positions, and to counter the political machine, which the religious right has been operating for 20 years. So while the loss is disappointing, it was still remarkably close. We are heartened by how significant our first effort was and we do learn from our mistakes.

Good luck in the next four years. If your actions lead to peace, stability and democracy, I will be proud, once again, to be an American. I sincerely hope they do. May God bless this world and all of us, still so unsuccessful at living up to the message of peace and respect that has come from so many sacred leaders: Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tse, Moses, and Mohammed among them.

Best wishes for your holidays,

Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
Minister, the UU Church of Silver Spring, Silver Spring, MD

My matted roots, white fingers, stubborn, instinctive, a thousand arms, ten thousand gripping toes.... together with my fellow crab grass, I renew my commitment to the work of Unitarian Universalism. I will work for that bright sun of our UU ways in this church and in this country, and I do believe, I do believe, that someday, people will know and embrace our light. Amen.

Meditation

Spirit of Life, Spirit that animates the cosmos and this world and all life on it, which possesses power and beauty, danger and promise, Spirit we pray:

Let us have, and let us keep, the compassion, patience and strength our times require of us. Amen.

Responsive Benediction

In a world with so much hatred
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT PROCLAIMS THE INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON.

In a world with so much brutality and fear,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT SEEKS JUSTICE, EQUITY, AND COMPASSION IN HUMAN RELATIONS.

In a world with so many persons abused and neglected,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT CALLS US TO ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER AND ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER TO SPIRITUAL GROWTH

In a world with so much dogmatism and falsehood,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT CHALLENGES US TO A FREE AND RESPONSIBLE SERACH FOR TRUTH AND MEANING.

In a world with so much tyranny and oppression,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT AFFIRMS THE RIGHT OF CONSCIENCE AND THE USE FO THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS.

In a world with so much inequality and strife,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT STRIVES TOWARD THE GOAL OF WORLD COMMUNITY WITH PEACE, LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.

In a world with so much environmental degradation,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT ADVOCATES RESPECT FOR THE INTERDEPENDENT WEB OF ALL EXISTENCE OF WHICH WE ARE A PART.

In a world with so much uncertainty and despair,
WE NEED A RELIGION THAT TEACHES OUR HEARTS TO HOPE AND OUR HANDS TO SERVE.