Love Calls Us On by Rev. Anthony Makar
So there I was, watching the news conference in Helsinki. Right before my eyes I saw our President stand beside Vladimir Putin and take Putin’s word over the word of our American Intelligence agencies.
A moment of literal treason!
Right before my eyes.
Then I read about the Supreme Court and how it ended its spring term this year. With a flurry of decisions that reinforces entrenched patterns of privilege and power.
One decision granted Christians special rights. The Court was offended by how Colorado officials treated the Christian beliefs of a cakeshop baker, but it was and is not offended by how the President treats Muslims.
Another decision granted white people special rights. Voter-suppression schemes in both Ohio and Texas which target minorities and take the vote away from them were upheld as constitutional.
A third decision of the Court was to grant anti-abortionists special rights. It ruled that it violates the free speech rights of anti-abortion centers to require those centers to inform their patients about ALL the options available to them, including abortion. However, this logic doesn’t go the other way. Abortion centers must tell their clients about non-abortion related options.
The bad news got worse when we learned about Justice Kennedy’s impending retirement, opening the way to even more conservatives on the Court and further energizing its oppressive tendencies, which include a potential future reversal of Roe vs. Wade and and also the right of same-sex couples to marry.
All this news—and there are still children in the immigrant (or better, refugee) concentration camps that have yet to be returned to their parents.
It is seemingly endless! So terribly painful to witness. So many of the gains of previous generations reversed, just like that. So many threatened.
Even more painful is how the Make America Great Again crowd continue to cherish Trump, no matter what. Brian Kemp won the GOP nomination for Governor of this great state because of him, even after the treason in Helsinki!
How are you explaining this to yourself? How are you making sense of it?
Journalist Doug Muder speculates in a way that I think is provocative to the point of truth. He says, “What if what we’re seeing is an actual schism in American Christianity? On one side will be a genuinely Christian Christianity, one that takes the words of Jesus seriously. On the other side will be a Trumpist religion that is nativist and supports all the traditional supremacies: white, male, heterosexual, and born to wealth. One side will concern itself with the poor and victims of injustice. The other will preach a prosperity gospel in which God wants you to be rich and has his own reasons to leave the poor in the gutter. One side will promote humility, the other will glorify men of large egos, who never apologize or admit their mistakes.”
Conservatives are fearing changes that threaten all the traditional supremacies, but their fear has become a kind of strength through Donald Trump.
Donald Trump as High Priest, and folks want to be born again through him.
The one who practices a perverse erasure of truth and a free press
The one who fights our international friends and makes friends with our enemies
For the devotees of Trump, holy scripture is his tweets, his sneers, his xenophobia, his gleeful mysogyny, Fox News, and also all the conspiracy theories that clutter the airwaves.
Imagine the depths of the fear in America, in both the poor and the rich–the fear in their hearts–to install Donald Trump as their pastor….
I had to take a break from all this toxicity, unfolding right before my eyes and before all of our eyes….
I took a break, and these days it’s been … acrylic painting. Something new in my life. Apparently you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Trying my hand at abstract expressionism. Less words and more color. Paint on the canvass, and paint underneath my fingernails….
Joy of painting. Joy of inner images being discovered through an entirely intuitive process. Not worrying at all about whether what happens on the canvass resembles anything in the real world. Images that truly please my eye and make me happy.
But I couldn’t stay there for long. I had to go back to those other, harder, images of reality. Unitarian Universalist that I am, I had to.
How to understand what is going on with our country?
It was then I remembered a quote from the great Mark Twain. He said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
It’s another way of saying that the short view—the here-and-now view—can trap a person in a way that feels like the early onset of depression. You start thinking thoughts that, in normal times, would never pass muster. Despair starts to make sense and you can’t seem to think beyond it, outside of it. It’s like a death shroud you wrap tightly around yourself, and it suffocates.
Whereas the not-here-and-now view can liberate. Imagination becomes a way of seeing what’s right before your eyes with a mind informed by history and by stories that tell you of surprising possibilities that no one could ever have foreseen and, in the end, it was very good.
I scanned my library for something that might do the trick. And I found several things I want to share with you today.
One was a book by religious scholar Stephen Prothero entitled “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars: Even When They Lose Elections.” Now I liked that title! Whoa, tell me more!
Here’s a bit of what I learned.
First, I learned that there have always been culture wars and there have always been high priests of fear who advocate for turning the clocks back, no matter what, as opposed to making more room for more people around the table. “With compromises meant to smooth over differences between the states,” says Prothero, “the founders created a union that left unsettled key questions that would foment discord and even rebellion in decades to come. One concerned slavery. Another concerned religion. So American politics has always been a staging ground for moral and religious conflicts. The culture wars did not begin in the 1960s or 1970s, when most books on this topic open. They did not begin in the 1920s, as some dissenters claim. They began in the birth pangs of the Republic itself. More than two centuries before Barack Obama was accused of being a covert Muslim, Thomas Jefferson was said to be a secret ‘believer in the Koran.’”
He’s one of us, by the way. Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian.
And then there’s this thing I learned. That “In almost every case since the founding of the republic, conservatives have fired the first shots in our culture wars. Equally often, liberals have won.”
Prothero defines conservativism in a special way, as “a kind of nostalgia for a form of life or culture that’s passing away. And so you can’t get really get your constituency riled up about a form of life that’s passing away unless it actually is passing away.”
This is one main reason many conservatives lose. “The causes they select are lost from the start. For example, culture warriors took on Catholics when the Catholic population was mainstreaming and gaining power. They took on same-sex marriage when many gays and lesbians were already out of the closet and accepted by their heterosexual relatives, co-workers and neighbors.”
“To me,” says Prothero, “Trump is the best advertisement for my book. He’s the king of the lost causes.” “In the end, the arc of our culture wars bends towards more liberty, not less. As each of our cultural battles coms to and end, we are left with a more inclusive country, with an understanding of ‘we the people’ that reflects more of’“us.’”
That felt great to hear. I didn’t read it as an inevitability, though. I didn’t take it as an excuse to jump back into my abstract expressionist painting and stay there. Lost causes aren’t necessarily easy to win. The NRA is a lost cause, but it’s powerful.
History tells endless stories about what happened after conservatives who are nostalgic for an old, repressive order fired the first shot, and how liberals had to respond with all the hard work and all the dogged determination that real Love demands.
Love is not a pushover.
Love is not love that steps back, when the going gets tough.
Love is persistent. Love is resilient.
It is daring to be powerful, and, as Audre Lorde says, “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
But the point is, we can lessen the fear by expanding our imagination about what’s happening in front of our eyes.
We can trust that what is calling us on is not a mistake, not a disaster waiting to happen, but that it is Love.
Love calling us on.
Fear prevails because, says Prothero, “we have short memories. Because we move on. When liberals win—when anti-Mormon violence becomes a scandal or when a gin and tonic ceases to be one—both sides come to accept the new normal and conservatives move on to the next fight. A liberal win becomes a part of the new status quo and eventually fades from our collective memory. No conservative today wants to disenfranchise the Mormons or outlaw five o’clock cocktails. So these victories no longer even appear to be ‘liberal.’ They are simply a part of what it means to be an American.”
These days, no one can afford to have a short memory.
No one can afford to face what’s happening right before their very eyes without a well-expanded imagination.
And this is also so with regard to our move as a congregation.
It’s a time of huge feelings that are very mixed.
We are into our last worship series in this storied and beloved space, and we begin a journey that was unimaginable just a few short years ago. Next Sunday is the final worship service in this sanctuary that has been our home for 52 years, and the following Sunday, the faithful gather in a new space, our transitional space I’ve dubbed “the Treehouse,” while renovations to our new permanent home commence, and go on.
It’s like Anais Nin says, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
That day has come. To risk blossoming.
But it is risk. It triggers fear. Although there is no question we must move physically, fear can cause us to remain tight in the bud in our minds.
We can step back, rather than step forward.
I just have compassion for this. This space has been a mandala to us, a focuser of spiritual passion, a design in concrete of a circle inside a square which was meant to telegraph our Unitarian Universalist mission of asking the biggest, basic religious questions there are, of searching and finding the truth that sets us free, and of putting that truth to work in acts of service and justice.
We have been so very fortunate for our mandala in concrete.
And so we grieve.
And the grief is only exacerbated by a larger world that feels like it’s on fire.
But here we are. And again, an enriched imagination will serve us very well in this time. It will serve us very well to know that this congregation has endured all sorts of shocks in its 134 year history, including five moves. Before this congregation could move here, back in 1966, it resided in temporary space for four years.
We are stronger than we know.
But still, what’s happening right before our eyes is shocking. Upsetting. Disorienting.
The urgency and the confusion of now.
So I want to offer up another imagination-expanding story, which is also true. We believe in truth in this congregation.
The story takes us back to a time after the Civil War, in a South that was ravaged by Reconstruction policies that wreaked havoc upon an already weakened and fragile economy. All that the poor farmers planted was cotton, but cotton drained the soil of its valuable minerals, and yet they still planted cotton for it was all that they knew.
It was a vicious circle, seemingly without end.
And then the boll weevil came—the cotton farmer’s worst nightmare.
The insect is a native of Mexico and in 1892 started to emigrate northwards into Texas and Alabama and Virginia and other southern states. Each spring, adults emerge from hibernation to lay eggs within cotton bolls, the tissues that eventually give rise to the plant’s valuable fibers. As the eggs develop, they destroy the crops literally from the inside out.
It meant that the vicious cycle of planting cotton was ended. The boll weevils threatened to bring utter and permanent destruction. USDA officials called the invasion “a wave of evil.” Newspapers predicted the end of the Southern way of life.
Into this picture came a man whose imagination was larger than the suffering he saw before his very eyes. George Washington Carver.
From his very youth, he had been interested in plants and earned the epithet “The Plant Doctor” as a young boy when he helped his neighbors with their gardens and crops.
He was the one who recommended crop rotation as a way to return nutrients back to the soil. Don’t just plant one kind of crop over and over. Change things up. Especially, plant peanuts.
Writer Emily Glaser shares some of the rest of the story: “The poor farmers Carver so desperately wanted to help latched onto the idea of crop rotation and quickly began alternating their cotton crops with peanuts. The results were impeccable; farmers were delighted with the profundity of peanuts and cotton. But the new-found fertility of the lands brought its own complication: what to do with all those peanuts?
“Carver returned to the lab once more to help his apprentices. He emerged in 1916 with his ‘How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.’ Carver discovered over 300 uses for the simple nut, including ink, coffee, axle grease, bleach, shaving cream, and wood stain. Needless to say, farmers quickly found a use for all those peanuts. The cotton oil mills across the South were easily converted to peanut oil mills. Farmers also began feeding their livestock the plants of the nut and feeding their families with the product they couldn’t sell. With his hundreds of discoveries, Carver furthered the movement toward complete self-sufficiency for Southern farmers.”
So the South was saved. Maybe some of you personally know that story.
And did you know about a certain statue in Enterprise, Alabama, that stands at the intersection of College and Main: a slender lady in flowing white robes, a heavy object high above her head? “Think Charleston Heston in that scene from the Ten Commandments—only where Moses held stone tablets, our lady holds an outrageously oversized bronze boll weevil.” (Ansel Payne).
From agricultural menace, to town hero.
Adversity that called for new heroes and new thoughts, to take the South into a new future.
It’s getting way ahead of things to say that one day UUCA might erect a statue in honor of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta whose impact on us has been decidedly boll weevil-ish.
It’s way too soon to talk about erecting a statue in honor of Donald Trump, for all the ways his lost causes will challenge us to get more articulate, more focused, and more intensive in all the hard work ahead.
But maybe one day.
All I know is that Love calls us on—despite what’s right in front of our eyes
Love calls us beyond what we think we’re capable of
Love calls us on, in ways that at times seem merciless and cruel
Love calls us on, to the end of the world as we know it, and beyond
Love is calling America on, to greater inclusivity and community
Love is calling our this spiritual community on, to become something new
Who are the George Washington Carvers among us, who won’t stand back but they will step forward with us, and they will astonish us with new vision and new vitality?
Love is about the long haul, Love is about the marathon.
What a marathon journey we are embarking on.
And Love is calling.