Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tonight's Statement to the Jackson City Council



Earlier this year, Jackson Together, with the support of the HRC, Jackson Area Civil Rights Awareness Association, PFLAG, and more, asked once again for this City Council to take up the issue of a Non-Discrimination ordinance to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  It was tabled.  We were asked to support this tabling of the motion by our mayor and vice mayor and Equality Michigan, the reason being that they thought that the state legislature, at the behest of the governor, would amend Elliott-Larsen to include LGBT people, and that would provide some of the same protections as our NDO at the state level.  That change did not occur, as you know.  The Mayor and Vice Mayor pledged to us that this issue would be brought back up in December if Elliott-Larsen was not amended.  I’m here to hold you to that promise.  The people of Jackson have waited too long for equality.

We’ve heard some nonsense about how this is not doable, and we’ve heard some nonsense that it’s bad for business.  I call this nonsense because sixteen cities larger than ours in this state have passed just this sort of ordinance, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Flint, Kalamazoo, and Battle Creek.  They have all proven that this is possible to do, and that it’s not bad for business.  In fact, many companies are looking for places where their employees will be protected, and have already passed nondiscrimination policies for their corporations.

Perhaps you think we’re too small to tackle this.  Yet twenty-one smaller cities have also proven this possible, including Adrian, Fenton, Grand Ledge, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge (which has a total area of half of a square mile -- I grew up there), and Traverse City.  

A recent Rolling Stone article named Michigan as the fifth worst state in the nation for LGBT people.  They wrote:

Dave Garca, the executive director of Affirmations LGBT center, told CBS.... "It is still legal to fire people in Michigan for being gay, we can not marry, cannot adopt, and the governor signed away domestic partner benefits for LGBT public employees," Garcia said… it has "created an anti-gay environment across the entire state."
Garcia has a point: The Guardian's 2012 survey showed that Michigan has almost no protections for LGBT people at any level, putting it on par with Mississippi.[1]

It’s time for Jackson, Michigan to rise above the level of Jackson, Mississippi.  It’s time for the City Council to act.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ferguson

I would normally post this on the Lively Tradition, where I've been doing most of my blogging as of late, but posts there get reviewed first by Tom Shade.  Tom was down in Missouri this week, but was headed home today.  He stopped in the middle of Illinois and turned back South again as the Grand Jury results were announced.  

I have no eloquent words to share tonight.  Just a cry of "no more."

My heart is heavy tonight as I hear the Grand Jury's decision.  It's not a surprise, any more than it was a surprise that George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin's death.  And it may be that this decision is what is legally right, but it means no justice for Michael Brown, just as there has been no justice for so many young black men and boys who have been killed by law enforcement, including Tamir Rice, age 12, who died yesterday in Cleveland, shot for playing with a toy gun. 

If Darren Wilson didn't break the law, what we need in this country, I'm feeling, are new laws.  We need new laws limiting the use of deadly force.  We need new laws that prescribe other methods of stopping people whenever possible.  We need police to enter a situation and not escalate it, but deescalate it. 

If it's legal to shoot an unarmed man six times, we need to change that law.  And changing that law isn't on the Grand Jury, it's on us, the American people. 

We need to have a national conversation about the use of lethal force by our police, and how this is being so commonly used against unarmed black men in this country, and how we're letting that happen.

Monday, November 17, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 6

This is my final post in this series on UU sermon writing.  I've been trying to establish that sermon-writing for UU ministers is a more time-intensive practice than in many other preaching traditions, that it takes a bigger percentage of time for the new minister, the long-term minister, and the part-time minister.  That being most of us, what I'm saying is it takes a whole lot of time and there are a lot of variables that make it take even longer than some might think, and it's not a one-size-fits-all thing.

So then I've turned to what we can do about it.  In my last post I reviewed the ideas of theme preaching and preaching extemporaneously, both of which I recommend.  The review of Nate Walker's upcoming book Exorcising Preaching: Crafting Intellectually Honest Worship, which he kindly mentioned in the comments of the last post, says, "all of us are smarter than any one of us."  This is why theme-based preaching is so helpful.

So I think finding ways to make the sermon-writing process easier is good.  And I think those calling for extemporaneous preaching as a way to get out of our heads and into our hearts may be right about that.  But the truth is even with talk of "congregations and beyond" and even with branding and insight into new types of ministry, right now the Sunday morning worship is still the heart of what we church ministers do.  It's appropriate that we throw much of our lives into that work, and while it's always good to find ways to make that easier, another option is to take that work that we've poured our lives into and use it more

One thing that the internet age has done is upped the ante for good preaching.  No longer is it sufficient to be the best preacher in town.  An "excellent sermon" is now a higher standard as we can easily compare our sermon on any subject to dozens of colleagues' sermons with a simple internet search. At the same time, we're firmly rooted in an academic tradition which prizes original writing and academic honesty.  Ministers found guilty of plagiarism face strong consequences.  And I don't disagree with that -- plagiarism is not honest.  But think about this idea for a moment.  What if instead of always crafting our own sermons we sometimes shared, openly, what we felt was the best writing out there on the subject at hand -- even if it was not our own?  Why shouldn't it be okay for some of our worship services to be focused on the work we find to be most excellent in our movement?  Right now a good sermon gets shared maybe five times, for most of us, except for those who are invited regularly as guest speakers who might use a sermon more than that.  You might preach it once in your own church, twice doing pulpit exchanges, once at a General Assembly workshop if it wins an award, and then it might get picked up and read at a UU fellowship.  Given that most of us guest-preach or do pulpit exchanges only a few times a year, I'm guessing, most of our best work ends at our own church's doors.  And sometimes we just know, let's face it, that a sermon isn't working for us, and that our words are not coming together on a subject.  Maybe it should be more okay to say, "my colleague X speaks eloquently on this subject, and today I'm going to share their sermon, with a few changes that I'll mention where I'm personalizing it to our location." We should take those award-winning sermons and archive them (with an index of topics or some other search method in place), and make our own best work more broadly available. 

It's a radical, and uncomfortable, idea, I suspect.  But I think we need to think outside the box like this in this new era.

More radical than this idea is something that's already being proposed, and that's multi-site ministries.  Look for a new webpage up about this in the next couple of weeks.  If I think about it then, I'll come back and link it in, but it's still being developed right now (for now, here's the GA workshop).  But this is the work coming out of Scott Tayler's office at the UUA and with regional staff focused on it across the country (in MidAmerica, that would be Dori Davenport).  When congregations are yoked together in different ways, it may become more the practice that the best sermons we do will get heard in more locations -- or at least the best preachers will get heard in more locations, and hopefully have the time they need to devote to their craft.  You see, it's also true that not all of us are great at everything.  It's hard to admit it sometimes, but we all have strengths and weaknesses.  And for some of us, preaching is a weakness, yet we may have other real strengths for parish ministry.  But there aren't enough associate positions to go around if they're limited to the big churches.  That's why we need to bring congregations together so that we can all play more to our strengths and have someone else helping the church in our weakness areas. 

These are just two models of how we can reinvent the preaching role.  But we need to explore a lot more ideas like these as we respond to the changing religious landscape around us.  What are the ways in which our intellectual professorial model of the sermon is working for us, and what are the ways it is not?  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 5

My interim friends have told me I have overstated the case on interim preaching, and that there are many who always write fresh material or whose rewrites are extensive enough that it's not much of a time-saver to have old material to use.  I believe they're right, and apologize for overstating the case.  I think it's still true, however, that the time when sermon-writing takes the most time is early in ministry in general and after a number of years in a long-term ministry.  The longer you go in any pulpit the more you know you've used your best stories and examples.  Moving to a new church lets you use those pieces again, even if written into new sermons.  Early in ministry, in general, you have a lot of fresh examples, but are unused to the rhythm of regular preaching, which makes it harder.

So, turning to the focus of my last parts of this series, I've talked about how preaching in our religious tradition takes up a significant portion of the week, and a higher percentage for part-time ministries.  It's appropriate that this big percentage of our working hours goes into the production that is Sunday morning, since this is the most visible part of ministry and Sunday morning worship is the heart of the church still.  Even so, it's a lot of work for a one-time production, and it leaves less time for all those other parts of ministry which may be things that would attract the non-churched "nones," like web presence, social justice work, community building, adult religious education, and other writing and other public speaking and public presence. 

There are two things we can do to change the equation.  One is spend less time on Sunday worship.  The other is use the worship service more.

For the first (and less radical) option, I highly recommend the workshop on "Preaching by Heart" ( http://www.preachingbyheart.org) by Rev. Stephen Shick  and Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy.  I went through the workshop last winter.  I'm a manuscript preacher and love the written word.  I love writing.  But I tried preaching extemporaneously from that point forward on a regular basis (less often this fall, but still using it), and the results were great.  Even though I still felt like it kept me from finding the exact perfect words that I might have chosen on paper, my congregation greatly appreciated the extemporaneous preaching, something they had always liked about my predecessor, Rev. Susan Smith.  And it saved a lot of time.

Shick and Kennedy argue convincingly that people today are suffering from spiritual disconnection, and the direct experience of connection more present in extemporaneous preaching is what they're longing for more than for the perfectly crafted theological argument.

Another way to change the equation by spending less time in worship preparation is through theme preaching, which is a movement that is sweeping our country.  The secret to this isn't that we're preaching on themes, it's that we're doing it in groups and then the groups can share resources -- stories, images, examples, quotations.  Each preacher can then frame those in their own way, but it saves a lot of research time.  Essentially we're getting that lectionary benefit that Christian ministers have by working with each other and sharing themes.

There are a number of theme-based groups, I think, across our movement.  But the two main ones I'm aware of are the "Soul Matters" group ( http://www.soulmatterssharingcircle.com) led by Scott Tayler (Congregational Life Director at the UUA) and the themes published by All Souls, Tulsa ( http://themebasedministry.org). 

I would guess that each of these tactics can decrease worship preparation anywhere from 25-50%.  For me, preaching extemporaneously probably saves me 5 hours of actual writing time, but all the other preparation time is the same, research particularly doesn't go away.  Soul Matters themes, on the other hand, changed things in the opposite way -- research is decreased by maybe as much as half, but the writing time is the same.  Since trying themes I've used less extemporaneous preaching, so I can't speak to how the two might work together, but it's conceivable that together they could decrease worship preparation time very significantly by decreasing both the writing and the research. 

Next and final: worship and the changing church -- using the worship service MORE.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 4

I've talked about why UU sermon writing takes more time, why UU ministers don't preach every Sunday, and why the dynamics are tougher for part-time ministers.  Next I wanted to talk about some models for making this situation more workable, particularly in light of the changing dynamics of church life.  But before I do that, I want to talk about one more thing that really belongs in Part 1 or 2, which is for whom does sermon-writing take the most work?

My suspicion is that there are two categories of ministers who need the most time for sermon-writing.  The first is ministers who are new to the ministry.  These ministers don't have a large number of old sermons to draw from, although they have a handful from seminary and internship.  Their advantage is that their seminary learnings are fresh, and that they've had more recent experiences of being regular worshippers at other ministers' worship services, but they have a disadvantage of less experience in the work of writing sermons week after week without pause.

The second category of ministers who take more time for sermon-writing are those who have been in their current pulpits for several years.  Any bank of sermons they had coming into that pulpit has been used up, and they have to cover the same holidays for years running and bring new approaches each year. 

These two categories of ministers will need the most time for sermon-writing.  Those who will need the least time are those coming to a new pulpit from an old one, who have built up a bank of sermons from which to draw.  While every preacher will need new material to respond to events in the world and in the individual church, and most sermons will need a rewrite for a new context, these ministers are still at an advantage having large blocks of sermons that they can use from week to week.

This is particularly a useful feature in interim ministry, of course, because that ministry has all the regular work of ministry plus particular goals of the interim ministry period to achieve.  Having blocks of sermon-writing time freed up for the other work is important.  The down-side of this is that if the congregation gets used to the level of activity of an interim minister using old worship materials, then they may expect that same level out of their newly settled minister, as well.

Up next: changing models for the changing church

Friday, November 14, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 3

In the last couple of posts, I've outlined why it is that the sermon-writing process is different for UU ministers and why it is that we are not in the pulpit every Sunday.  And, of course, this has ramifications.  And the impact of this is different for bi-vocational (part-time) ministers.  It's important to look at this, since bi-vocational ministry is getting a lot of interest these days because of the increasing struggle of churches to afford full-time ministry, particularly in the changing religious landscape with fewer people in younger generations interested in traditional church.  The bi-vocational trend may need to look different in our UU churches than it does in other denominations.

Generally in our movement, it seems that half-time ministers preach twice a month for ten months of the year, or a total of 20 sermons.  They don't really get extra Sundays off for denominational leave; those are just scheduled into the half time that they're not working -- even though, of course, denominational work and continuing education is, indeed work.  Note that two half-time ministries would equal more than one full-time ministry -- a minister with two half-time ministries would have no off Sundays, and no Sundays free for continuing education, chapter meetings, and General and District/Regional Assemblies, unless that half-time minister was preaching at two churches on the same weeks at different times.

Now think about what percentage of a minister's time is devoted to preparing for and leading worship.  With a full-time minister, it might be as much as 20 hours a week on those weeks the minister is preaching, or 60 hours in a four-Sunday month.  If that minister is working, conservatively, 50 hours a week for those 4 weeks of the month (pretend this month is February that we're talking about), then that's 60/200 hours, or 30% of their time devoted to worship.

With a half-time minister, suppose that minister is working, again conservatively, 25 hours a week for four weeks of the month, and preaching twice using 40 hours devoted to worship preparation.  That's 40/100 or 40% of their time.  So the bi-vocational minister will need a greater percentage of their time for worship preparation. 

The problem is, what do you decrease and do less than half of?  Not pastoral care.  Trust me, you can't just refuse to answer every-other pastoral need.  You're doing 100% of that, not the 50% that half-time ministry would suggest.  So that's going to take a double percentage.  Now you need to cut something else even more.  Perhaps you only respond to half of the social justice issues in your community?  The major area to cut is committee work and administration, but administration is a hidden work of the minister to begin with, that congregations don't think you're spending much of your time on.

Basically, as every half-time minister knows, there's no such thing as half-time ministry. 

This becomes even more complicated for 3/4-time ministries, particularly when increasing from half-time ministries.  A church increasing from half time with 20 Sundays wants naturally to move to 30 Sundays for 3/4 time, which is virtually full-time ministry from a preaching standpoint.  With preaching and worship being a large percentage of the job. 

If, again, you start with assuming a 50-hour week, 3/4 time of a 4-week month would be 150 hours.  Three sermons at 20 hours each would be 60/150, or 40% again.   It's a slightly better struggle than half-time ministry, because you're still doing 100% of pastoral care and 100% of everything else that you can't really do less at, but now you're getting paid for 75% of it.  So it's closer to workable.  But the big problem is when you try to go to full-time ministry without any substantial increase in the number of Sundays, so what the congregation is getting for paying you 25% more is basically just the good feeling of knowing they're paying you fairly for the work you've already been doing, but they aren't going to see much more result for it.  I suspect, as a result, sadly, the 3/4-to-full jump is the hardest to make.

Ultimately, I want to say that bi-vocational ministry is harder in our tradition because the worship preparation time is harder in our tradition, and it's the most visible and desired part of ministry, and part-time ministers really are seldom given the amount of time they need to devote to it, without just working more and more hours for part-time pay.  This is one reason why you find ministers less willing, in our tradition, to consider part-time ministry. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

UU Sermon Writing - Part 2

In my last post, I talked about one major reason why UU ministers usually don't preach every Sunday of the year, and why our tradition is different from Christian churches about this.  In addition, there are the following reasons:

First, and most importantly, we believe in the prophetic power of the laity.  We're not the only ones with something to say about our faith, about the big questions, about the future of the church, about social justice.  We have amazing lay people, and we believe in sharing our free pulpit with them.  This is a major difference from traditions which believe the ordained have a more direct connection with God, and a difference from traditions that don't let lay people preach without license.  While we often give ministers a quality control responsibility for how their pulpit is shared, we fundamentally believe in the "prophethood of all believers."  Our lay people are amazing, and we want to hear them.

Secondly, we have an increasing understanding that a healthy church is helped by a healthy minister, and that our ministers have high-stress jobs where they are always on call, and have little time to spend with family and friends who work or go to school in a regular work week.  We want ministers to have friends and to have family, and to get some time to spend with them.  That means they should limit their working evenings and have some Sundays off. 

So how often do we preach?  That varies tremendously.  But what I often hear is that the average UU minister (full-time) gets one Sunday off per month (for 10 months), plus 4 weeks of vacation and 4 weeks of study leave.  And then often added to this is up to 4 weeks of denomination leave for things like General Assembly, District/Regional Assembly, UUMA Institute and Chapter meetings, other continuing education, and study groups.  Some of these may not actually encompass a Sunday, but may take up enough of the week to make it difficult to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  So my math would say that full-time ministry would look like 52 Sundays a year minus 10 off minus 4 vacation minus 4 study leave minus up to 4 denominational leave, and the result would be 30-34 Sundays per year leading or participating in the worship life of the church. 

Next up:  Implications for bi-vocational ministry and implications for the changing church.

UU Sermon Writing - Part 1


With all the discussion in recent months about bivocational ministry, it's worth discussion what implications it has for that central role of the minister: the preacher.

My assertion is that Unitarian Universalist preaching for our ministers is a very different thing from preaching in Christian traditions, and from what lay people experience when they preach.  And the reasons that this is different are also some of the reasons why many of our full-time ministers don't preach every Sunday.  Here are some of those reasons:

First, in many Christian traditions, there's an assumption that all your sermons are going to in some way tie back to that specific faith and its religious text, the Bible.  You've spent much of your seminary career studying that particular text and you know it well.  Your members are not surprised to hear the same stories coming up in worship again and again, and the same Biblical images.  You may have a lectionary that you use that tells you which passages to use for each week of the year.  You have online resources of sermon starters, stories, examples, and more, to go with that lectionary.  And you probably have a group of local or online colleagues who are doing that same lectionary that you can discuss the week's choices with.

Our lay people when they preach have something of a similar experience, in that they're often preaching on something that they're an expert on, or at least is their real passion.  And they may have months to prepare that one particular sermon.

Contrast both of these with the UU minister's experience.  While you've had four years of theological school, you're expected to be well-versed in not just our religious tradition of UUism, and not just that tradition plus Christianity, but that tradition, Christianity, and all the world's religions.  But then these world religions and theology while they may inform your preaching, will likely not comprise all of your topics.  It is a common experience for the UU preacher to tackle a number of new sermon topics each year, each of which might require extensive new reading in an area completely new to the preacher, and which may be a topic never used again. 

This is the number one reason I think our preaching takes a larger percentage of our time, and also why we don't preach every Sunday even while full-time. 

The amount of time it takes a minister will vary, but I've often heard colleagues saying it takes them two full days of sermon-writing, although most of our letters of agreement give us one sermon-writing day.  20 hours is a number I've heard multiple times, which would equal about half of a regular worker's full-time week.  That 20 hours may include research, meeting with musicians and worship associates, writing, and more.  It seems like a lot of time, but as central as Sunday morning still is to our tradition, and with our expectation of scholarly and original work, it's not surprising that we put so much emphasis on it.

Coming up next:
-- Other reasons UU ministers get some Sundays off
-- Implications for bivocational ministry
-- The changing church and implications for worship

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Witness on Wheels: General Assembly Misses the Mark

I wrote the following piece right after General Assembly this year, but left it unpublished for a few months to reflect on it.  Reading the UU World piece on "Fired Up: General Assembly Energized Unitarian Universalists with New Models of Ministry and Outreach" fired me up to finally publish it. 

At General Assembly this year, I was using a scooter. It’s not the first time I’ve been on wheels – I was using a wheel chair for a semester in college, due to broken bones. As for scooters, I’ve been using them there for the last several years, because it helps me with pain management. This year, newly diagnosed with various foot and ankle problems, it was more of a necessity than ever. As someone who is usually about on legs rather than wheels, every time I’ve been in this situation I’ve learned a lot. And I’m aware enough at this point to know there is still a lot more that I’m not aware of about how people on wheels experience the world.

This General Assembly was the most difficult one I’ve experienced in terms of accessibility. The problems included the facility, the planning, and even the theology. But one event stands out as the most painful for me because it went beyond facility and planning problems and became an event where the participation of other GA attendees made the situation worse and worse.

This year at GA, the big witness event was Providence’s “Waterfire.” The plan was for everyone to gather for worship, and then process to the Waterfire location, a couple of blocks away. I knew enough about how difficult the witness events on wheels can be to check in with the accessibility table, where they gave me a map of where was accessible and where was not, and told me the plan was for all the scooters and wheelchairs to exit worship first, directly behind Peter Morales and some other dignitaries and people on stage, and for everybody else to wait and let those on wheels go first. This sounded workable, so I decided to go.

At the “Dunk” – the Dunkin’ Donuts Center where worship was held – there were only two elevators that we had access to. While the lower level is at ground level, the main entrance is up a huge flight of stairs to the second level. With the dozens of scooters and wheelchairs in use at GA, this can cause quite a backlog when everyone tries to exit the lower level at once. We can stay on the upper level, but there’s a limited number of spots (I got the very last one for Sunday worship), and if you wish to participate in plenary (now called “General Session”), you need to go to the lower level to reach the microphones. After opening worship, they held everybody in for a few songs so the people on scooters and wheelchairs could exit first. Of course, some people had exited at the same time anyway, making the request moot, but then people were waiting for elevators for nearly an hour before the last ones were out. It was a nice gesture, but completely inadequate to the problem, to sing an extra few songs so that we could exit before the throng.

For the Waterfire event, therefore, they had planned another exit. We were to follow our President (along with our family or companions) out the zamboni entrance into the alley and then zip around to the front, which we did. That part went smoothly. I was about three scooters behind Pres. Morales, and the chaplains were keeping pace with me for a while, and then moved ahead and joined the people on foot at the front, as the scooters spread themselves out a bit, to get onto the single-file sidewalk, and give ourselves enough space between each scooter or wheelchair to see terrain and obstacles, and to stop if we needed to stop suddenly. The scooters have no breaks.

When we got to the front, some of the gathered UUs had filled up the sidewalk. We had to carve a path through, following President Morales, but the walkers who were escorting us called out for people to move to let us through, and most did. A few inserted themselves into the procession, taking up our spaces that let us see the uneven sidewalks and the curbs. We navigated through the crowd at the front of the Dunk, and got to the next curb. The crowd behind us started walking.

As we processed up the next block, dozens of UUs started walking around us toward the front of the procession. Our walking companions called out to them to tell them they were requested to let the scooters go first. Most ignored the calls to let us do so. As they would get in front of a set of scooters, they would start filling in the gap we were leaving so that we could see terrain and curbs. We got pushed farther and farther back.

On the next block, a steady stream of UUs started to pass me on the curb. We were held up by the crowd in front of us, having to stick to the sidewalk.  Sticking to the sidewalk, you can only go as fast as the person in front of you.  However, those who wanted to truck on by on the curb could do so easily and get up to the front. It’s much the same phenomenon of when a lane closes on the highway, and some cars have merged over and are going slow in the one lane that’s open, but other cars zip by on the shoulder, and then squeeze in the lane farther ahead.  I called out to some folks passing by to try to explain the situation, but was rebuffed or ignored. Admittedly, I may have sounded a bit frustrated by that point.

Why does it matter? Why should the scooters go first? First, it was an act of grace, an act of inclusion, a recognition that we’re often forced to the back of the line, the back of the bus. Second, it’s a necessity for us to have the space to see in front of us. In a crowd, that means you relegate us to the back, or you allow us to go first. The third reason has to do with getting us to a place where we can see the event, as I will get to shortly.

By the time we got to the Waterfire location, I was a full block behind Peter Morales and the chaplains,  despite staying dangerously close to the scooters in front of me. He held the crowd of UUs who had gotten ahead of us at the corner, while the scooters were all directed around to the ramp to get down to the water. The staff at the Waterfire location directed us over to a ramp that was full of UUs watching the water.

They had us wait for a few minutes, and at first were suggesting we park on the ramp. The woman who had been escorting us asked a fellow standing on the ramp railing videotaping if he could move for us. “No, I can’t,” he replied. Then we were told another woman had an idea of how to handle things. She escorted one scooter at a time down the ramp, and over to the area that had been roped off, presumably for us, full of standing people in Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts. She carved a spot out in the people for one scooter at a time, getting us each all the way up to the railing. And so I was carved out a spot by the railing, with clumps of UUs standing on each side of me, and could see absolutely nothing for quite a while, since with the nose of the scooter in front of me I was effectively a row behind, and seated, with people standing virtually in front of me.  I could see whatever happened directly in front, but no more. The women to my left and right, though, were gracious – more gracious than I, muttering under my breath – in helping me to eventually see when they understood the nature of the problem, and, of course, it was crowded and they wanted to see, as well. Another woman on a scooter told me later that she had one couple between her and the rail that refused to move to the left or the right, despite there being space to do so, and so she saw next to nothing.

It’s a different feeling of hopelessness for me being on a scooter in a crowd where you’re completely pinned in. On foot, you can always force your way out. On a scooter, I feel trapped, like I couldn’t get out if I wanted to. I remember feeling that way at the social witness event at Tent City at the Phoenix GA. But there, there was a feeling of such goodwill and generosity from my fellow UUs. Our bus chaplain, who is a friend of mine, stuck with me all night. She left her cases of water to distribute by me, and her backpack, so that she would know where they were, and I was her touchstone and she was mine for the evening.  When I needed to move around, the crowd helped. They lined a path and kept it clear. The UUs on duty made sure we were safe, and all was kept orderly. 

Waterfire was the opposite feeling. I felt isolated and abandoned in the midst of a crowd of people Standing on the Side of Love.

After the fires were all lit and some singing had happened, and the crowd thinned a little, it seemed like a good time to leave and try to explore some of the rest of the Waterfire event. My scooter got stuck on the cobblestones, and the friendly crowd of UUs did help me to get started and get out of the space. Trying to explore the rest of Waterfire, however, was a disaster on wheels, but I was on my own with my family and not with anyone from GA at that point – which was part of the problem. My little map was helpful, but getting anywhere on the wheels was nearly impossible. I accidentally took the sidewalk instead of the street at one point, and had to ask about a hundred people to move so I could get down it, as they were still watching from there down to the water. I forced my way miserably down to the love tent, my voice hoarse from asking people to get out of the way, found the tent and got a carnation, and tried to move beyond it to see what the tents beyond were. The crowd was so thick at that point that I couldn’t really maneuver at all, much less really see what was there. My family and I turned around in frustration and headed back to the convention center where I was let in to park my scooter for the night.

In the end, it just really wasn’t an accessible event. I got further than anyone else on wheels I spoke with did, and that wasn’t far, and didn’t encompass most all of the UU-sponsored spots. I think it would be more honest for the GA planners to say, “This big cornerstone event of GA just isn’t accessible,” and then for our gathered assembly to wrestle with the honest emotions of what it means to have a major part of GA that all of us don’t have access to. I think we could learn something from that exercise. What I’m hoping for the future is for the GA attendees to learn and understand why the scooters are being allowed to go first and why it’s not okay to just hop around us. I’m hoping for the GA Planning Committee to learn that choosing a location and events so inaccessible isn’t simply “a necessary trade-off,” it’s an act of oppression. And I’m hoping that for future GAs, we can show real improvement both through stronger planning and through educating our attendees further.

After GA, one of my colleagues posted on Facebook the question of whether we should change the name “Standing on the Side of Love,” because it’s not inclusive of those on wheels. People quickly responded that it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. I used to feel that way, too.  After this Standing on the Side of Love event, it felt like in Providence it was meant to be taken literally, after all. We can do better than this as a faith. We can do better than this for social witness. I’m hoping we will, and that I can feel included in "Standing on the Side of Love" again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Meaning of #Ferguson

Generally I write about things on my blog that are not the same things as I'm preaching on -- the blog is an outlet for thoughts that aren't about something I will be preaching on, but still want to get out there.  This past week, I threw out my regularly scheduled sermon to write about Ferguson, as many ministers did around the country.  Because I was channeling all my reading and research and thoughts into the sermon, however, it meant a lack of blog writing on the subject.  For those not in my pews, therefore, I realize it can feel like I've been silent on the subject.  So I'm doing what I don't very often do, and posting my entire sermon, lightly edited, to this blog.  The sermon I was to give was a reprise of one I did post to this blog, a sermon entirely in rhyme about Earth Day and The Lorax.  It's the tenth anniversary of my call to the church, and I had asked people to vote on their favorite sermons of ones I have given over the past ten years.  So during announcements, I announced the change thusly:
There once was a minister who planned far ahead,
Not knowing that current events would instead
Make her wish her week’s sermon was not planned
So that she could respond to events in our land.

She had planned to give her whole sermon in rhyme.
When she gave it before, it was liked at the time.
It was a sermon that was given for a holiday, Earth Day,
And speaking in rhyme was an unusual way
To bring attention to the message of global warming
And all the climate trouble that’s forming

It’s still a relevant message, so she’ll give it next week,
But if it was next week’s sermon on art that you seek,
Well, don’t fret, because it’s likely a topic this year.
Ann Green, you see, is likely to steer
The sermon she purchased at auction that way.
And, so the message that you’ll hear today
Is not the one that was in your Bellnote.
Not the one that got the vote,
That was submitted when Cindy asked for your choice
Of sermon for her anniversary to voice.

Nevertheless, there’s more ways to celebrate,
This ten-year occasion, than just when we congregate.
A party at Elissa’s is coming on Saturday at seven.
Or seven thirty, either way, it’s sure to be heaven.
We’ll hope to see you there.  And again, come next week,
If it was the Lorax/Earth sermon you came here to seek.

It was a light moment in an otherwise solemn service.  The reading was "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes.  And here's the sermon.  Please forgive that my footnotes are not all in Chicago Style, and that it's still a little bit rough.  Sermons are an oral presentation style, not a written one.  The hashtag in the title is a reference, of course, to the role of Twitter in getting this story out.  There are many things I haven't covered in this sermon -- how the rights of the press have been suppressed, the discussion that's being had about the militarization of the police, and how the media covers the deaths of young, black men (although I mention this briefly).  Those are all important subjects to look at, and I hope I will, in time.

"The Meaning of #Ferguson"

Ninety-five years ago, in the summer of 1919, which would come to be known as the “Red Summer,” race riots broke out in cities across this country – in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Connecticut, Tennessee, Maryland,  Arizona, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas, you get the picture.  Not here, but Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In Chicago, they started when a young black man was stoned while swimming in an area reserved for whites, and drowned, and Chicago police refused to arrest those who did the stoning.[i]  The Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay wrote a poem for that summer, “If We Must Die,”  The poem reads:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Fifty years ago was the summer known as Freedom Summer, a summer devoted to registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi.  It was then and there that three young civil rights workers were killed – twenty-one-year old James Earl Chaney, an African American young man from Mississippi, and two Caucasian young men from New York, 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner.  Paul Simon was a classmate of Andrew Goodman, and he dedicated a song he had written before the death, “He Was My Brother,” to Goodman:
He was my brother
Five years older than I
He was my brother
Twenty-three years old the day he died
Freedom rider
They cursed my brother to his face
“Go home, outsider,
This town is gonna be your buryin’ place
The folk-singer Tom Paxton wrote, similarly:
Calm desperation and flickering hope,
Reality grapples like a hand on the throat.
For you live in the shadow of ten feet of rope,
If you're Goodman and Schwerner and Chaney.

A lot of things have changed since 95 years ago and 50 years ago.  But this summer, the way things have erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s bringing those summers back to mind.  There are no songs or poetry emerging yet that I’ve heard, although time will tell.  What we have, in the internet age, is a hashtag -- #iftheygunnedmedown.  What the hashtag is about is young African-American men and women posting two different pictures of themselves on Twitter.  One is a picture of them in college or high school graduation robes, or in military uniform.  The other is in street clothes, flashing a gang sign.  And the question is, if they gunned me down, which picture would the media use? 

This sermon is not about the details, and about whether this young man, Michael Brown, was a good kid or a thug.  What I have to say today is about why this case has become so important, why we’re talking about this young man’s death at all, and why there is protesting still going on down in Ferguson.

So, briefly, what we think we know, for those who haven’t been following the news, is that a young man, 18-years-old and college bound, African-American, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson.  It looks like, based on the latest news, that Michael Brown may have stolen some cigarettes or cigars from a local store.  It was reportedly a strong-arm robbery, which means the thief was unarmed.  It would be shoplifting, but it appears was a tussle with the store owner who tried to stop the thief, which would make it strong-arm robbery by definition.  This robber is alleged to be Michael Brown, but that’s not completely proven.  [Update: It’s now being reported that the shopkeepers didn’t call in to 911, that Michael Brown paid for his purchases, and that a call was made by another shopper.]  It then appears that as Michael Brown was walking somewhere, a police officer ordered him to get out of the street and stop walking in the street.  One witness says they then ran, another witness says she saw Michael Brown struggling to get away from the police officer who had grabbed him through his window.  It also seems that while the stop was unrelated to the robbery, by this point the officer may have linked Brown to the robbery.  Brown then, according to a witness, breaks away and runs away, and is shot.  He then spins around, holds his hands up in the air to surrender, and is shot several more times.  He then is left, dying or dead, for quite a while, untouched, with a crowd gathering, until an ambulance arrives. 

So Michael Brown was not, possibly, a perfect citizen for us to be rallying around.  Or maybe he was just an 18-year-old kid out for a walk.  Whether he was or was not does not matter.  It’s really beside the point.  As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow:
When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards—or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do—shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices—often for less compelling reasons—are in fact going to college. The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners.  All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives.[ii]
In Michael Brown’s situation, his mistakes, if he made any, didn’t lead to his incarceration, but to his death.  Here in 2014, it seems that this young man’s life, Michael Brown’s life, matters beyond his family, but to the nation.  Why? 

This story of Michael Brown came on the heels of another African-American man, Eric Garner, who was killed this summer by the police, in New York City.[iii]  An asthmatic, he was put in an illegal choke hold and died on the street.  Also this summer, John Crawford, in Ohio, was shot and killed inside a Walmart.  Unlike Michael Brown and Eric Garner, he was armed.  Armed with a BB gun he picked up on the shelf in Wal-Mart, with intent to, perhaps, purchase.  And Ezell Ford, in California, was killed this summer.  Also unarmed, it’s reported he was shot in the back while lying on the ground.  Dante Taylor, in California, this week, was unarmed, tazed by the police when he resisted arrest, and died.  A robbery suspect had ridden away on a bicycle, and Dante Taylor was on a bicycle.  Many of these African-American men didn’t behave perfectly in the situation.  But they were all unarmed, all African-American, all dead at the hands of police. 
What is true in this country is that white Americans and black Americans have a very different experience of law enforcement in this country, and very different expectations of how we’ll be treated in encounters with them.  White Americans, largely, are taught that police are to be respected, admired, and are there to protect you.  Police can be expected to come when you call, to respond to you politely, and to treat you with respect.  Police are not expected to hassle you or stop you when you’re walking down the street or driving down the street, unless you’re speeding.  And when you are stopped for speeding you have a polite chat, get your ticket, and drive on your way.  White people can reasonably expect when they’re in a store and walking out that they will not be stopped; even if the security alarm buzzes as you go out, you’ll be waved on your way.  How many of you watch Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC?  Did you know she is a Unitarian Universalist?  Melissa Harris-Perry reports that a black person is killed by a white police officer at least twice a week from 2006-2012.[iv]

The protests in Ferguson have taken up the chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” as reportedly Michael Brown had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” 

After Trayvon Martin, we heard a lot in the media about how African-American men are socialized in this country – told respect and not challenge law enforcement in any way, because those encounters, in the African-American community, are considered to be encounters that can easily become deadly.  It’s hard for white people to understand the reality of growing up and living in a way where the police aren’t your protectors, they’re your antagonists, where you might be stopped and detained regularly for no reason. 
This isn’t new.  In 2001, talking about a man who attempted to get into the White House when George W. Bush was president, with a gun, comedian Chris Rock said, on the Daily Show, “That's right. That guy jumped the fence or whatever and they shot him…  I knew it wasn't a brother, because they shot him in the leg. It's like, 'Oh, they shot him in the leg? Must've been a white guy.'"[v]

In American, when you’re white, you can carry your gun around with you, and have encounters with the police where they merely ask you for your concealed carry license.  If you’re black, you can’t pick up a BB gun off the shelf in Wal-Mart.  That’s the perspective of African-Americans in this country.  After Trayvon, Etan Thomas, an NBA player, wrote, “Very soon, I have to ruin my son's rose-colored glasses view of the world we live in. I have to teach him that...[i]f the police stop you, make sure you stop in a well-lit area and don't make any sudden moves. Keep your hands visible. Avoid putting them in your pockets.”[vi]  Actor Levar Burton, from Reading Rainbow and Star Trek the Next Generation, has said:
Listen, I’m gonna be honest with you, and this is a practice I engage in every time I’m stopped by law enforcement. And I taught this to my son who is now 33 as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he is growing up. So when I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger’s side, I roll down my window, I take my hands, I stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver’s side because I want that officer to be relaxed as possible when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.[vii]
Contrast that to what you might expect from police, if you’re white.  Tim Wise, who is a white author, has written this:
One day I locked myself out of my car on Roberts Street and so I’m trying to break into my car with a coat hanger and a cop comes up. And he sees me doing it. He does not even ask me for ID or proof that that’s my car. Literally, the NOPD was like, hey you’re breaking into the car the wrong way. Let me help you. The cop was trying to help me break in. Now there is not a black man in this country 23 [years old] for whom that would’ve been the reaction.[viii]
In fact, I watched a video where they recreated exactly this sort of thing.  They had an African-American man and a white man, both dressed in t-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap, both trying to free a bicycle that had been locked up with bolt cutters.[ix]  The white guy got asked if it was his bike, but out of a hundred people who pass by, only one tries to stop him.  With the African-American guy, he’s stopped repeatedly right away.  And when it was a blond-haired white girl, openly telling people she was stealing it, people helped her.

I took a test earlier this month, for a inter-cultural competency inventory that the MidAmerica Board is all talking together.  I’ll find out next month where I stand.  But this model that we’re using is called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity[x], and it says that intercultural sensitivity is something people can and do learn.  In it, people move from Denial to Polarization to Minimization to Acceptance to Adaptation.  In the Denial stage, people would say that there is no racism, no difference between the races.  We’re all human, that’s all that matters.  To some extent, our Unitarian Universalist theology encourages a level of denial, to ignore differences and look at our common humanity.  In this stage, we have one size fits all solutions.  Laws are laws, crime is crime, the police are the police, end of story.  The next stage is polarization.  It’s us vs. them.  And we defend ourselves at that stage through fear and anger – distrust of others, denigration of others, feeling our way of life is threatened.  We can see some of that in the police response in Ferguson – meeting protest with tear gas.  We can see that kind of response in the arguments around immigration earlier in this summer.

Minimization, the next step, returns to a “deep down we’re all the same” point of view. W e avoid stereotypes, and we’re consistently, and insistently nice, avoiding anger.  Lots of us UUs find ourselves here.  We can recognize differences, but we minimize them.  We want to assume we’re all the same deep down and focus on that and ignore, or minimize, the difference.  Our response to Ferguson here is to use expert data – most of those young men who were killed were troublemakers.  The police are really here to serve and protect.  People need to just avoid conflict.  Everything will be okay.  Minimization.  We just all need to follow the golden rule.

The next step in intercultural growth is Acceptance.  Everything becomes relative at this point.  Behaviors are relative, values are relative.  We have a curiosity about other cultures without evaluating them.  We assess communities in their own communities, rather than applying global rules.  So a response to Ferguson at this level might take into more account of the socio-economic and historical struggle of Ferguson, and say, no the experience of the police in that community is not the same as it is here in my community.  At the same time in Acceptance, you can realize that values are relative, but hold onto your own – I value peace, and nonviolence.  I can see that others are responding differently, and understand why, but without giving up my ethical commitment to nonviolence. 

The last stage is Adaptation.  At this stage, we begin to adapt our own culture and change it in response to others.  This is where we need to get to, as a movement, as a faith, and as an entire country, with Ferguson.  We need to adapt our American culture to understand the lived and very different experience African-Americans have had in this culture.  Adaptation is shifting to be more effective in the situation, not changing permanently, necessarily.  It was adaptation to bring in a different person, an African American officer, to lead the police in Ferguson.  Another example of adaptation: my colleague Tom Shade wrote an article this week in which he charged us, as a movement to do three things in response to Ferguson – Learn, Re-Think, and Teach.  In talking about re-thinking, which is adaptation, he asked what it would mean for us to move from thinking “#notallcops” in response to Ferguson to thinking “#yesallblackmen.”[xi]  What that means is what is your first reaction to the story?  Do you jump first to saying, "Not all cops are like that?" Or do you jump first to saying, "Yes, that's the experience of all black men in our society, for the most part."

Another example of that charge comes from 48 years ago, but it’s a charge directly to us.  In 1966, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  The Ware Lecture is where basically we, as a movement, invite an outsider to come in and tell us something we need to hear.  In his lecture, titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” Dr. King said these words, that I think speak to us today about moving from denial to adaptation, and about how to respond to not just Ferguson, but police violence, and also the New Jim Crow today.  This is a long quote, and I’ll close with his words.  He said:
…certainly we all want to live the well adjusted and avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry .I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence….  Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, cried in words lifted to cosmic proportions—"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.[xii]
May it be so, my friends.  May we be amazing maladjusted to the troubles of our day.


[ii] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition (p. 205).
[iv] Harris-Perry, Melissa, http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry, August 17, 2014
[x] Information taken from presentation to the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Fall Chapter Meeting 2013.  More on the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bennett_scale.
[xii] King, Martin Luther.  Ware Lecture, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1966.  http://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware/index.shtml

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring

Robin Williams' daughter wrote, "while there are few things I know for certain right now, one of them is that not just my world, but the entire world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence. We’ll just have to work twice as hard to fill it back up again."

What I've noticed in the last few days is that the world is a little more honest, a little more caring, and a little more vulnerable.  I've noticed friends who normally chat about their child's latest achievement or complain about their latest work hassle open up about their own depression.  I've seen people show a vulnerability through honesty about their own struggles.  Among my colleagues, there's been a lot of writing about personal experience.  People are opening up about their own depression among friends on Facebook.  Some are even posting more publicly on blogs.  Rev. Tony Lorenzen writes, "It’s the depression, both his and mine, that makes his passing a powerful loss."  Rev. Marilyn Sewell writes, "I have dealt with depression off and on all of my adult life. I never once seriously considered suicide, but I can understand why depressed people decide to end their lives."  Intern Minister Kimberley Debus and Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom both talk about both Robin Williams and the Rev. Jennifer Slade who committed suicide earlier this summer.  Debus writes:
I have lived that moment when, despite having some success and security, I could see no way out.
I have lived that moment when, despite knowing that there were people who would miss me, I thought they would be better off without me.
I have lived that moment when, despite being knowledgeable about mental illness and the tragedies of suicide, it just didn’t matter.
It's difficult, I think, for people in the caring professions to acknowledge their own depression and suicidal feelings.  It's difficult because, right or wrong, we feel we're supposed to be worrying about other people and not have worries ourselves.  It's difficult because we're supposed to be psychologically healthy to engage in this work, and admitting our struggles puts us at professional risk.  It's difficult for the same reasons that Robin Williams' depression was difficult to understand.  With Williams, the question is how can someone be depressed when they are so successful, so rich?  With ministers, the question is more, how can someone be depressed if they're someone spiritual, who looks at the deeper side to things, who is in connection with the holy, whose mission it is to make meaning?  How can we find life meaningless when we know "we are the meaning makers"?  So it's not to be taken lightly that people are being open, being real, and talking about this. 

I know why Robin Williams' death is meaning so much to me.  My whole life I've been surrounded by people dealing with deep depression.  Dead Poets Society which dealt with depression and suicide came at a time in my life when I had so many friends around me that were deeply depressed that my very poor joke about the matter became to say that I ought to introduce myself by saying, "Hi, I'm Cindy.  We've just met, so you must be depressed." The movie hit as I embarked upon my first poetry class in college, the prerequisite to becoming an English major.  I was in a Dead Poets Society group of sorts, albeit with a different name, where we met in the evenings and read poetry and literature and talked philosophy, and felt life intensely.  Williams' death calls me back to those days, to the powerful emotions of the time, to the poetry and the call to "seize the day" and make our lives extraordinary.  "O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring."

When I went through the worst period of depression in my own life, a few years later, I was well enough to seek help, and to get better.  And I wasn't depressed enough that I ever seriously got close to suicide myself.  But the death of a celebrity from suicide helped me, strangely.  That celebrity was Kurt Cobain.  When he committed suicide, as rich and successful and popular and idolized as he was, it helped me to realize that the action, suicide, bore no connection to the things we think suicide is about -- money, fame, love.  I wasn't a big Nirvana fan at all, but Kurt Cobain's death woke me up to my own levels of depression and where, unchecked, it could lead.  I sought help, got myself into therapy, and got a better and deeper sense of myself than ever before.  And I've never had that level of depression since.  Something about Kurt Cobain's death, as little sense as that makes, changed things for me that day.

I hope Robin Williams' death is changing things for people now.  I sense that it is, in this openness to people talking openly and honestly about their struggles.  I hope that it's helping to erase the sense of shame around mental illness to know that someone like Williams could suffer from it.  I think it is. 

When I heard of Williams' death, my heart cried out, "Oh Captain, my Captain!"  Indeed, the Whitman words were soon trending on Twitter and people standing on desks across the country and world.  (Mine is too cluttered and not sturdy, but the fact that I tell you that tells you I thought about it.)  It's appropriate not just as a quote from a movie that dealt with suicide, and as words used to hail Robin Williams' character in the movie, but also for the subject of the poem, the death of Abraham Lincoln:
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.   

Williams was no Abraham Lincoln, but he is captaining our ship somewhere--somewhere a little darker, less colorful, but a little more loving, more open, more honest, and more real.