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Safety Trumps Comfort. Period.
[Originally published in Unity Magazine May/Jun 2022 issue. Pic via iStock]
In a post last year I invited us to ponder, “Are We ALL Really Welcome Here?” I asked how uncomfortable are we willing to get in our churches and spiritual centers so that everyone truly feels comfortable. In case it wasn’t clear, “we” meant those of us who posses greater levels of privilege in a patriarchal, heteronormative, abelist, agiest society that still defaults to whiteness as the racial and cultural norm. Many of these norms are internalized and unconsciously influence us.
One example of an internalized white cultural/supremacy norm is policing the spaces that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) folx occupy. This usually manifests when a white person believes a person of color should not be doing whatever they are doing in the way they are doing it in a space they probably shouldn’t be doing it. Remember in 2018 when a white woman called the police because black people were barbecuing in a public park? Or when a white student at Yale University called campus police on a Black graduate student after she fell asleep in a common room in her dorm? How about the two Black men that were arrested in Philadelphia after white Starbucks employees called the police because the men were sitting peacefully, but not ordering anything as they waited for a friend to arrive.
You might think such extremes do not happen in spiritual communities. You would only be partly right. In a fascinatingly tone-deaf move, some churches have refused to let their congregants of color form affinity groups. To advance racial equity, there is work for white people and people of color to do together, and separately. Affinity groups (sometimes referred to as a “caucus”) provide spaces for people to work only with others from their race or ethnicity. Whether or not white bodies want to believe it, their very presence shifts the energy and power dynamics in the room. People of color feel safer to be themselves when they are by themselves.
White people often struggle with this. “We’re not being racist!” they might say. “In these already divisive times we can't have more division. Having groups separated by color only fuels more racism! We should all be working together on this!” The desire for togetherness is a false flag. There aren’t objections to other groups that divide along different lines: women’s groups, men’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, millennials or seniors groups.
Another internalized white cultural/supremacy norm, which is intended to be a well-meaning reason for not having racial/ethnic affinity groups, is the thought that if white bodies aren’t in the room how will they know what to do about racism? “We need them (BIPOC) to tell us how to fix this, how to be antiracist! We also need them to hear how progressive we are, to hear how bad we feel for what they experience, to hear how angry we are on their behalf.” These are not just excuses for wanting to manage the space, but they also put extra burdens on people of color to help educate, validate, and provide comfort.
Regardless of the intention, the impact on BIPOC of not allowing and supporting racial/ethnic affinity groups is that their needs (and by extension, they themselves) are not worthy of consideration, or can’t be trusted, or can only be allowed if it doesn’t take away from the comfort of the white-bodied majority. It is not welcoming. So again I ask: How uncomfortable are we willing to get so that everyone truly feels comfortable?
[To learn more about Affinity groups visit projectsanctus.com/antiracism-affinity-groups]
[Originally published in Unity Magazine Mar/Apr 2022 issue.. Pic via HURCA!/Adobe Stock]
Contrary to popular belief, or intention, spiritual communities are ripe breeding grounds for fear. To borrow from Buddhist teacher and author Tara Brach, fear is the anticipation of future pain. The problem is, we don’t always know when we’re being influenced by fear, or what we’re even afraid of.
Take last November’s local and state elections. If you can remember that far back, there was one issue that galvanized many voters: Critical Race Theory (CRT). The over 40-year-old academic concept that rose from a framework for legal analysis proposes that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. The idea mostly only circulated in academia and publishing for decades. It hit the mainstream a couple years ago when Christopher Rufo, a shrewd conservative activist, rebranded and weaponized it as a blueprint for teaching children that it’s bad to be white.
Parents, especially white suburban women, flocked to the polls and, in the instance of the Virginia gubernatorial race, elected the candidate who vowed to ban CRT from public schools, even though it had never been part of the K-12 curriculum. A viral meme summed up the reaction of much of white America to CRT: “So the folks who tried to prevent a black girl from going to school in 1957 are opposed to their grandchildren learning about how they tried to prevent a black girl from going to school in 1957.”
What allowed them to hear and respond to this particular racist dog-whistle? Fear. More specifically, the fear that by being exposed to the realities of racism in American history (and present), their children would have to grapple with the uncomfortable truths that their parents would rather ignore, or worse, maintain.
Some parents believe their young children don’t even know what race is. Children know more than we give them credit for. Research has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces, and 3-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school (American Psychological Association).
CRT may not be the biggest trigger issue in churches, but conversations around racial reckoning stoke similar fears and discomforts, which in turn fuel older well-established anxieties: "We don’t come to church to feel uncomfortable"; "If we talk too much about this we will lose congregants and income"; "We aren’t racists because everyone is welcome here so there’s no need to talk about this"; "This is a divisive issue, we teach Oneness and Love."
The notion that churches should not be places of discomfort betrays the true intention of any spiritual movement. We are supposed to be challenged, and it’s in the tension of discomfort that growth happens. Jesus did not make comfort a priority. He even threw insults, calling some people fools, hypocrites, snakes, and vipers. His approach was not antithetical to love. As James Baldwin reminds us, "Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up."
Hardly anyone is comfortable talking about racism. Spiritual growth and healing comes when we individually and collectively face our fears, as well as lean into the discomforts they generate.
Let’s remember to love each other while we do.
Where Will You Stand?
[Originally published in Unity Magazine Jan/Feb 2022 issue. Photo from honoringmlk.com]
Were he still alive, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. would be celebrating his 93rd birthday on January 15th. The 3rd Monday of January is designated as a federal holiday in observance of King’s birthday. Although initially opposed, President Ronald Reagan eventually signed it into law in 1983, and the holiday was first observed in 1986.
There is no disputing King’s role in history as the face and voice of the American civil rights movement. And boy, do we love to quote him! In New Thought, his quotes on love hold a special place for us. In numerous services and publications, and not just around Martin Luther King Jr Day, we often hear and read the following: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”; “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”; “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” He too saw Love as both a divine quality and a divine imperative.
In a recent Unity Magazine feature (Sep/Oct 2021), I said that white privilege lies under the tendency for some of us to spiritually bypass. We use principles like, “It’s all in Divine Order” or “God doesn’t see color” as excuses to stay disengaged. We tend to bypass Rev. King as well. How often have we heard the following in our churches: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”; “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”; “...the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not… the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”; “...there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
For many “good white moderate[s]”, that time was the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. They found their voices, and began to address King’s concerns of negative peace. They were no longer willing to passively accept the ongoing evil of systemic racism and took to the streets around the globe. And for the first time in many New Thought churches, ministers and congregants risked being political and unpopular, even more than after the 2016 election. We began to recognize our complicity. We stepped up and into the challenge of difficult and uncomfortable conversations of what we actually do, not just hold in intention, to be the change we want to create.
It’s a good start, and let’s be clear, it’s only just that: a start. The work isn’t done because we created new vision and mission statements dedicated to diversity and inclusion, or held a few book groups. Changing a culture (including ourselves and our churches) that has been centered in whiteness for centuries will take time. Dr King reminded us that, “The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where [they stand] in moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they stand] at times of challenge and controversy.” What’s your measure? Where will you stand?
A few days after publication, a reader from a Unity church emailed me: “I see here in your column on page 15 in Unity Magazine ‘That the work isn't done because we created new vision and mission statements dedicated to diversity and inclusion or held a few book groups…’ I think we at [church] did those things... Do you have any new specific ideas/suggestions about what else we at [church] could do at this time?” (To honor privacy I removed the name of the church)
Yes, there are many things to do both individually and as organization. Before sharing them however, remember that when, as a white person, you ask BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) folk, you are placing an additional burden on us. Our ongoing struggles to survive and thrive as minorities in America are compounded when we are asked to help you fix the cultural norms that you inherently benefit from. Answers to what you should do to be antiracist are easily found with a google search.
That being said, as co-founder of project_SANCTUS, I’ve made it my work to be a resource. I also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The following list (adapted & edited) comes from the book “Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuated Racial Harm” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white antiracist author writing to a white audience. These suggestions are for both individuals and organizations:
At project_SANCTUS we host monthly affinity groups, and we are leading a book study of Dr Robin DiAngelo’s “Nice Racism.” If you are truly dedicated to the work of antiracism, please join us.
Time to Let Go of God
[Originally published in Unity Magazine Jan/Feb 2022 issue. Photo by Adam Burton via Great Big Canvas]
When my wife was dying of cancer six years ago, I really wanted to be angry with God. But I knew it was pointless. God didn’t cause the cancer, and God wasn’t going to magically make the cancer disappear no matter how hard others prayed. I knew that’s not how prayer worked, or how God worked.
I used to believe that, however, and for more than a minute I was tempted to pick up the belief again. I not only once believed in a God that made things happen—and was the reason that all things happen—but also that he had a plan way too intricate for my puny human mind to even begin to comprehend. I just had to trust it, and when I didn’t, it meant that I lacked faith.
I would eventually have a crisis of faith, followed by a learning and embracing of Unity teachings. I released both the theistic and deistic beliefs that formed my personal theology. No more holding on to the image of a puppet-master overlord pulling the strings or a hands-off fend-for-yourself creator. I fully leaned into God as Principle. It was a tidier logic that allowed me to find my place in the vastness of All That Is. I was the embodiment of All That Is.
And yet, in the months that Jennifer’s body wasted away to skin and bone, amidst her howls and spasms of pain, at the moment of her final fruitless struggle for breath, I so very much wanted to shake my fists at the skies, demand answers, and offer bargains: Spare her, take me. I was genuinely surprised by my reaction, cycling through anger, disappointment, and sadness with not only what was happening, but also with the fact that I no longer had a God to be angry with. What was that about?
In a recent podcast interview, poet and author Mark Nepo said, “When I’m in conflict with you, I might have made you a surrogate for my argument with life.” During my years of believing in God as Supreme Being, I made God the surrogate for my displeasure with life’s events, while also struggling to admit that God caused those events. But I didn’t feel bad blaming God. He had broad shoulders, a big heart, and infinite patience to play the long game, knowing I’d eventually come around.
With that line of thinking came a certain level of comfort, because no matter how I felt, or what I thought and said, God still loved me, and I felt safe being loved. Plus, there was always the chance he would hear my prayer and grant my wish. Hope can be such a deceptively difficult addiction to break. Now where was my comfort? My safety? My hope? My surrogate? In realizing I no longer had them, I once again began to grieve them, as well as the deity they once embodied.
Let’s face it: Theology is hard. And the more you know, the harder it becomes because the more you realize you don’t know. Uncertainty can be very unsettling, even more so when the elements in our lives that we count on for stability become unmoored, leaving us feeling adrift. And if there’s anything we don’t particularly enjoy, it’s the disorienting feeling of floating in a morass of confusion and helplessness. It’s tempting to look back for any semblance of a familiar anchor, even if that anchor rusted out. The places in which we once found refuge may have crumbled to dust, yet standing in their ruins evokes the comfort of familiarity. In our most dire moments, we believe any bit of comfort helps, any shred of hope is better than none, any sense of the familiar is home.
But is that really true? The short answer is no. To be clear, I’m neither anti-comfort nor against hope. What I do oppose, however, is the rush to comfort, and the reality-denying illusion of hope. It is our aversion to sitting in the discomfort of whatever is arising in the present moment that sends us rushing back to the illusions and delusions of safety we imagine we might find in previously held beliefs or unhealthy relationships or harmful and addictive practices. In our desire to not accept any undesirable outcomes, we generate and cling to false hopes, often through the spiritual bypassing process of misusing our spiritual principles.
The Law of Mind Action (“Thoughts held in mind produce more thoughts after their kind”) becomes the formula for obsessive attempts to manifest miracles. Denials (releasing false beliefs) and affirmations (positive statements of truth) become “deny what’s happening, affirm distract with impossible outcomes.” In our panic and distress, we forget, or maybe we never really learned, that our spiritual principles are about our inner beingness… our consciousness. They aren’t magic spells to stave off inevitabilities. If we took the time to admit it, we’re probably chasing the miracle because we’re afraid to die, or lose someone close to us, and we haven’t yet come to terms with either.
Does that mean I don’t believe in miracles? If a “miracle” is anything other than accepting the inner experience I’m having in this moment, then yes… I don’t believe in miracles. Here’s what I believe: Everything that shows up is an opportunity for us to show up... as God.
In that same interview Mark Nepo also said, “No more bucket lists, no more five-year plans, just more of what is.” I love that! It’s an invitation to simultaneously dive deeper within, expand our current understandings, and stand still in the unknowing that leads to both further knowing and unknowing.
If, under duress, we revert to theologies of old, we rob ourselves of the most profound opportunities to deepen our spiritual experience and build spiritual resilience. Our spiritual teachings and practices are tools to re-center our consciousness around the truth of us: We are the Wholeness that transcends what arises in us as result of illness, loss, lack, or whatever the outer circumstance happens to be.
That outer circumstance might be losing God—and the beliefs we hold about God. Our spiritual growth tends to follow a pattern of either seeking new beliefs when the current ones fail to hold up under life’s unpredictable circumstances or unintentionally encountering new beliefs that may cause us to question the ones we hold dear. With each release of beliefs, the loss of the familiar triggers grief, which is its own experience.
It’s very meta: a journey within the journey. Eventually we find a place of contented repose, a certain sense of comfort in knowing that this new set of beliefs is right for us. That is, until they’re not. Rinse and repeat. It doesn’t take long before we realize that with each cycle, we take on a more expansive yet elusive understanding of the Divine, and before we know it, we make it our mission to constantly question and let go. We learn to relish the discomfort of uncertainty, because truthfully, any certainty about God is heresy. God lies beyond definition and certitude, beyond all theologies.
The only way to know God? Let go of everything we think we know and believe about God.
Are We ALL Really Welcome Here?
(Originally published in "Love and Justice for All" column in Unity Magazine Nov/Dec 2021 issue)
My name, Ogun, is the god or Orisha of Iron in the Yoruba religion that originates from, and is still practiced in, parts of some West African countries. When asked, my parents said they found the name in a book and liked it so much they assigned it to me. They had no information of our lineage past a handful of generations, as is quite common for the descendants of enslaved Africans. A few months ago I spit into a tube, mailed the sample to ancestry.com, and eventually received confirmation that I am indeed descended from the Yoruba peoples that once inhabited the countries now known as Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
Was it just pure coincidence my name coincided with my ancestry in such a direct way? When my parents first read and spoke my name out loud did the strands of their DNA that bore the imprint of our origins hum with awareness? Or was there some deeper, soul-level recognition of a spiritual lineage that transcended time and space?
The Yoruba religion predates Christianity by at least a millenia. It initially found no welcome in the West as slave owners attempted to systematically erase any reminders of the African Homeland in order to dehumanize and control their human chattel. In spite of their best efforts, and countless horrific homicides, enslaved Africans survived, as did their descendants, as did their spiritual beliefs. Yoruba is but one of many African religions alive and growing in the West as black North American, South American, and Carribean people seek to come home to themselves however they can. Ultimately, every religion is an attempt to understand God, and can ideally be practiced by anyone. But is there something deeper to practicing a religion to which you are ancestrally connected?
Justice suggests a righting of wrongs, or more broadly, making whole again by restoring what was taken or by replacing with comparable measures. For centuries, untold damage was done as Christianity sought to make Jesus’ Great Commission a reality. In order to “...make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” [Matt 28:19-20], the rights and abilities to practice ancestral reflections of God were stripped away, co-opted, or appropriated. Over time, in much of the Western world, Chirstianity became an experience centered around white-body comfort, with the implicit understanding that it was the right and only way.
We in New Thought believe we are more evolved than that. We believe that our spiritual communities and centers are open and welcoming. The striking lack of diversity in most of them would beg otherwise. While the intention might be “everyone is welcome here”, the impact on bodies on culture (non-white people) is “we want you participate in our white-body comfort zone and we don’t want to do anything different...except for maybe Black History month.”
As I wrote previously, Spiritual Justice can be understood as removing the self-imposed roadblocks to the fullness of our Divinity. One of them is the unconscious preservation of white-body supremacy in all its subtle forms, including and especially religion and spirituality. This isn’t an accusation of racism, but rather an invitation into self-awareness. It’s a call to momentarily soar above the waves to see that we are indeed fish swimming in water we do not realize is present all around us and permeating all that we do.
In other words, how uncomfortable are we willing to get so that everyone is truly comfortable?
Justice: The 13th Power
(Originally published in "Love and Justice for All" column of Unity Magazine Sept/Oct 2021 issue)
From my earliest days in Unity, the 12 Powers is still my favorite and most meaningful teaching. The idea that I am Divine, that the fullness of God exists at the point of me, can sometimes be daunting for a variety of reasons. The 12 Powers gives me a framework and languaging to make my God-self more palatable, accessible, and engageable. While Faith, Strength, Wisdom, Love, Power, Imagination, Understanding, Will, Order, Zeal, Release, and Life make for a thorough list, I’ve often heard a case for Joy as the unofficial 13th Power. I find no fault with this. After all, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [Nehemiah 8:10]. I want, however, to propose a more germane Divine attribute for such a time as this: Justice.
Too often, unfortunately, justice is conflated with punishment. Rallying cries for justice after the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers were spun as attacks against law enforcement, and twisted to instill fears of lawless anarchy if police reforms were enacted. Following the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict, Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison made it clear: “I would not call today’s verdict ‘justice’, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands.” Justice is more than restoration. It speaks to equitableness. It speaks to having the conditions leading up to, and supporting, discriminatory practices not existing in the first place.
Justice is grounded in Love. It’s not just in our hands, it is also in our hearts. From co-founder Charles Fillmore: “When justice and love meet at the heart center, there [is] balance, poise, and righteousness.” Righteousness is “a state of harmony established in consciousness through the right use of God-given attributes.” (Revealing Word). Everything starts at the spiritual/consciousness level, and Justice is both a Divine quality and a Divine mandate. The Psalmist sang to and of God, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” [Psalm 89:14]. Proverbs reminds us that, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” [Proverbs 21:3] Jesus invites us to not neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced…” [Matthew 23:23]
How are we practicing? We say that God is Love in action. Justice is also Love in action. When we love those who are disenfranchised because of the color of their skin or because of who they love or because of who they really are, we are Justice. And to be clear, loving them doesn’t just mean saying we believe them or see them or welcome them into our communities. Loving them is using the power and privilege we have to speak loudly on their behalf, and to help create equitable conditions so they may thrive as we do. It’s the challenging spiritual work of uprooting our own embedded biases and unconscious discriminations. It’s waking up to how we have used spiritual bypassing to not face our own complicity through silence.
True Justice leads to Liberation, the removal of all that holds us back. Since we live from the inside out, human liberation cannot precede spiritual liberation. Removing the self-imposed roadblocks to the fullness of our Divinity is our Liberation. Let us liberate others too. Let us Be Justice.
Don't Take The Bypass
When Our Spirituality Enables Injustice
(Originally published in Unity Magazine Sept/Oct 2021 edition)
On April 15, 2021, Chicago officials released the police body-camera video of the shooting and killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo as he appeared to be compliantly raising his hands after a foot chase. Someone on Twitter suggested that the media stop replaying the video because it was triggering to see a child die like that. I responded that while I agreed in principle, the “violence against BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] folks is often abstract because we aren’t really seen. Sometimes white folk need to see.” Someone else asked if saying “white folk need to see” wasn’t being racist against her, and she didn’t understand why, as a minister, I was “playing the race card” since “God doesn’t see color.” I probably don’t need to mention she was white.
There’s a lot to unpack theologically in “God doesn’t see color.” I imagine when someone says it, they’re sharing a belief in God as a benevolent being who does not discriminate, who loves equally, and who sees us not by our race, ethnicity, or identity but by our thoughts, words, and actions. God sees the content of our hearts, not the color of our skin. It’s meant to be a well-meaning, inspiring, perhaps even comforting characterization, but in reality, it is a lazy, juvenile, and harmful theology.
“God doesn’t see color” reflects an understanding of God that has not progressed past a childhood grasp of All That Is as a personified being (likely an old bearded white man) with human characteristics: He sees us, hears us, loves us, protects us. He is essentially a superhuman parent. And parents love all their children equally, right? (Wink, wink.)
Some of us eventually grow up, but only a little. We believe that God isn’t a person, but a Presence and Power, Love, Spirit. And yet we still pray as if God can hear and answer our prayers. We still speak about God as if God thinks about us and our lives. We still ask how God allows the horrors of the world to transpire and answer with a dismissive, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or as we might translate into New Thought terminology, “It’s all in divine order,” which is a tragic misunderstanding of that principle.
This is when bad theology becomes harmful theology. Since “God doesn’t see color” and it’s “all in divine order,” some of us feel no need to get involved because in the universal scheme of things, this is how it’s supposed to play out. It’s a privileged theology ... a white privilege theology. I understand that when we go to church, we want to be inspired to transform, not implicated in society’s greatest ill.
We want to feel good, not hopeless in the enormity of it all. It’s probably why the topic hasn’t often come up. I invite you to realize that we BIPOC do not have the luxury or privilege of avoiding the issue. I cannot take a break from my Blackness or from how I am perceived as a Black man in America.
It is also spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is the practice of using spiritual beliefs to avoid difficult and unresolved issues or as evidence that these issues don’t exist. Systemic racism affects us all, clearly more so for BIPOC. It will end only when everyone, especially those who directly and indirectly benefit from it, sees it for the scourge that it is and helps do the work to undo it.
Too often in Unity I’ve heard, “It’s not ours to set it right, but to see it right!” and “What we resist, persists,” so we didn’t speak directly about the injustices of the world. We were invited to not even think about them for fear of either polluting our consciousness or energetically perpetuating those injustices.
We were taught to see the Christ in each other, which often meant looking past each other’s problems. The “denial” of the practice of denials and affirmations increasingly felt like “ignore.” We were also constantly reminded of the fifth Unity principle, that it wasn’t enough to know the principles, we had to live them. Is it possible that, over the years, many left Unity churches not because spiritual transformation was too challenging but because the cognitive dissonance was too overwhelming?
When I say “white folk need to see,” I am referencing the racial history and tendencies of this country by which change came after the privileged bore witness to the system of discrimination and oppression they did not want to admit to maintaining. Change came about after white America saw the grainy images of dogs and fire hoses set on peaceful protestors in the Deep South, the batons crushing skulls on Bloody Sunday, and more recently, the knee of a white police officer on the neck of a handcuffed Black man for more than nine minutes.
Suddenly the dubious stories of a tormented people were believed—because they were seen. After George Floyd’s murder, the streets were filled with as many (if not more) white protestors as Black. Thanks to Darnella Frazier, a brave, Black 17-year-old with a cell phone, white America saw centuries of systemic racism encapsulated into one brutal deadly act of violence. Sometimes white folk need to see.
Sometimes we spiritual people need to see too. We need to see that while our teachings of oneness and love hold the seeds for justice and equanimity, they inadvertently encourage spiritual bypassing. When we bypass, regardless of the love in our hearts and the purity of our intentions, we are enabling a system of oppression. There is no neutral ground in racism. We are either being anti-racist in word and deed or we are maintaining the status quo. To live our spiritual principles, we must both imagine a world that works for all and then go about creating it. If not us, who? If not now, when?
It’s no accident that many of the greatest civil rights leaders and activists have been clergy and theologians: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. (and Rev.) John Lewis, Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Anna Pauline Murray, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, to name just a few.
By the way, when you tell me, a person of color, that God doesn’t see color, you have just rendered me invisible. You’ve just told me that God doesn’t see me, and because you are aspiring to be God-like, you don’t see me either. If you’re thinking, That’s not what I meant or that I need to work on how I hear things, welcome to bypassing.
Your intention and meaning don’t matter. You’re telling me that God doesn’t see my pain and neither do you, that you don’t see or believe my suffering, that my fears of being killed during a routine traffic stop because of the color of my skin are unfounded. You are telling me the weighty emotional burden I carry because I am still seen as less than by so many is easily shrugged off, and the realities of being Black are immaterial to God and therefore to you. You are telling me that what I experience doesn’t matter ... that I don’t matter. Even by your theistic theology, there could not be anything more God-less.
I write this not to call anyone out, but to call us in and to call us up. The work begins, as always, with the individual, including me. As a congregant and a minister, I have spiritually bypassed in order not to rock the boat or lose congregants or to assuage my own discomfort.
Check in with yourself right now. How do you feel as you read these words? I’m not asking what you think, but how you actually feel. Are you more relaxed? Tense? No different? Do you feel joyful? Angry? Empowered? Ashamed? Disappointed? Afraid? Stop and take a moment to notice, without judgment. There’s no right or wrong feeling, only the opportunity for insight, acceptance, realization, transformation, and growth.
Remember how you felt when you saw racial injustices on TV or heard people make both obvious and subtle racist comments. Did you ignore them or did you respond? How do you feel about that choice? Do you pray about injustice? How do you pray? How do you feel after praying, and what do you expect to happen after you pray?
Recall the sermons you heard at church. Were any social justice issues addressed? Does it bother you if so? Does it bother you if not? Were you invited to apply spiritual teachings, and if so, in what ways? What do you want to experience for yourself, your spiritual community, and the world? What part might you play in making that happen?
These questions are invitations to examine our consciousness, our beliefs, and our spiritual communities with compassion. They are not meant to condemn, embarrass, or shame. If you have been spiritually bypassing and want to be more engaged but you’re afraid of getting it wrong, know that there are many safe spiritual spaces designed for that very purpose. Two I recommend are The AntiRacism Institute created by The Unity Center in San Diego, California, and the 8:46 Book Club in project_SANCTUS.
Our personal and denominational theologies are not meant to be rigid. They should be dynamic and evolving, just as we are, thanks to life’s complexities and nuances. Challenging how our spiritual beliefs and principles have been understood and practiced does not make them wrong. It makes them relevant. This is not the time to be irrelevant. This is the time to be the presence of justice.
The Pause of Acceptance
(Originally published in Unity Magazine July/August 2021 edition)
Timing is everything. Memory helps too. I suppose I could’ve chosen another day to write this article other than the day the roofers were installing new shingles, but it was the day and time I had set aside to write, and I forgot it was the day and time they had set aside to roof. So I donned my noise-cancelling headphones, headed to the basement, and attempted to soldier on.
Noise-cancelling headphones “cancel” ambient noises by producing sound waves that are exactly out of phase with the unwanted frequencies. They work best with steady droning sounds, like airplane engine noise. The sharp loud hammering of nails into shingles a couple floors above me? Not so much. I also suppose I could have found another location to work, but thanks to the not-quite-over-yet pandemic, I wasn’t ready to venture into any public workspaces, let alone take the time to find one that was open. So I sat in my chilly basement, becoming increasingly frustrated with the whole situation.
Frustration, it turns out, is the antithesis to flow. Whether it be in-the-moment creating or every-moment Universal abundance, it drags us out of the present moment because we waste time imagining other times and spaces with much more conducive conditions. Like a virus, frustrations tend to replicate quickly. Before we know it, we’re overcome with past, present, and future grievances and irritations. Associated feelings of resentment, anger, and worry soon follow. Every subsequent event and interaction for the day now has the potential to be soured.
Frustrations are anchored by unmet expectations and imprecise interventions. I had envisioned a quiet day of solitude, the habitual and assumed conditions for optimal creativity. Not only was that not happening, but I tried to mitigate the distractions with a device that was not built for such a purpose. Frustrations are a shame catalyst: something must be wrong with me that I couldn’t remember the day’s schedule; now my already mediocre writing will suffer even more and no-one wants to read that.
We have been conditioned, in both spiritual and secular environments, to hurry a fix so that we can escape the discomfort. We tell ourselves it’s about productivity, or denying the outer, or attaining mastery over the circumstances. Some things can’t be bypassed or affirmed away. In spiritual circles we throw the word “Oneness” around a lot, while blissfully ignoring the ongoing divisions within ourselves. Jesus directed us to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We’ve been doing the second part really well, but not necessarily in the way we want to admit. How we have loved our neighbors, how we have treated each other, especially those on the margins, says a lot about how far we still have to go in loving ourselves.
The turnaround begins with a pause of acceptance. Acceptance does not mean we have given tacit approval to the situation. It is an invitation into self awareness. When we pause to accept how we feel about what is happening, regardless of the emotion, we are no longer in conflict with ourselves. Over the years too many of us have judged ourselves for not being spiritual enough because we kept feeling “negative” emotions. Hot take: Emotional regulation precedes spiritual realization. It’s why meditation works. Let’s give ourselves the space and grace to fully feel, accept, and only then, deeply love ourselves to true healing and transformation.
(Originally published in Unity Magazine July/august 2021 edition)
In the last few weeks of 2020, after almost an entire year of loss and turmoil and illness and death, the world was rewarded with a medical miracle: a vaccine against the COVID virus that had proven to be 95 percent effective—the first of several being developed. The global conversation suddenly shifted from uncertainty around how much longer we would have to endure shutdowns and sequestrations to burgeoning elation that we had finally reached the beginning of the end of the pandemic and soon, a return to normal.
I, however, was not elated. What began as a barely perceptible knot in my gut gradually expanded over the next few weeks into whole-body anxiety. I didn’t understand what was happening in me, or why. Of course, I was glad that a vaccine had become available within a year of the outbreak and that we could finally start reversing the mounting death toll. So why didn’t I feel happy?
As it happened, I was preparing a sermon series based on the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam Dell, 2003) by the Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, Ph.D. Its theme centered on radical acceptance as a process to awaken from the trance of unworthiness in which we often find ourselves stuck. It includes taking a sacred pause to disrupt our usual pattern of distracting ourselves from pain and discomfort, then really paying attention to our body to allow ourselves to truly feel what’s happening in us, and finally following that pain wherever it may lead us.
More than once I’ve told my congregants that I give only the sermons I need to hear and that they are eavesdroppers who might benefit from my out-loud missives to myself. So I decided to practice what I was preaching and sat in my growing unease for what I hoped would be a few days, but which would ultimately turn into a few agonizing weeks.
Things got so uncomfortable I started to lose sleep over whatever was stirring in me, which is how I knew it must have been serious because I don’t lose sleep over anything! Not long after college, I famously slept through a tornado touchdown less than a mile away as well as numerous tornado sirens while living in the Kansas City area. As I mindfully paid attention and listened, the truth—like a slow rising sun—gradually made itself clear: I did not want to go back to “normal.”
To be more specific, I did not want to go back to doing church normal—gathering in a building every Sunday morning to squeeze spiritual education, inspiration, and fellowship into three or four exhausting hours. This surprised me. Like millions of other clergy around the world, I had not been able to conduct a church service in person for months. Yes, we were doing a pretty good job of putting together a virtual service, but I missed many of the elements that only in-person worship could provide: lifting our voices together in song and our consciousness in prayer, as well as breaking bread and laughing together for hours in fellowship after the service.
What I couldn’t shake, however, was the bigger truth that the “normal” church model was dying a slow death. Fewer and fewer people were attending church, with more and more young adults professing to have no religious affiliation, even though still expressing some interest in spiritual development.
Then, the pandemic disrupted everything.
I use the word “disrupt” intentionally. Many people continue to see what happened as an interruption, a navigable speed bump that temporarily slowed us down before we would soon return to our regularly scheduled pedal-to-the-metal grind. Many of us eagerly await the “return to normal.” While the phrase is a catchall for the reopening of businesses and recreation and the availability of our usual distractions, it also implies that we will go back to being just as we were before the virus.
But there’s no going back. The pandemic was not an interruption. It was a disruption: a radical change from the norm. We may not want to accept it, but we have been forever altered by this experience, knocked off course into some alternate timeline from which there is no return. And if we are being honest with ourselves, many of us do not want to go back to “normal.”
Life in the time of COVID has been unimaginably hard, and the pandemic graced us with something we hadn’t previously taken the time to do: a hard reality check. The past year of forced isolation and separation, of personal and profound losses, of dread and uncertainty, gave us all the opportunity to dive deep into ourselves and reexamine everything: how we spend our time, who we spend our time with, our jobs and the very nature of work, the meaning of home and family, and both the light and shadow of ourselves, our neighbors, and our nation.
As a result of efforts to slow the spread of the virus, we discovered so much about ourselves, for better and for worse. Inequities and injustices were exposed. Relationships of all kinds were put to the test, some breaking under the strain, others morphing to become stronger than ever. Kindnesses, from neighborly to corporate, emerged as the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” became less rhetorical and more a matter of actual life or death.
To be clear, for some of us the pandemic affirmed that we are on the right track, that who we are and what we bring to the world is on point. Yet many of us realized that the life we lived before did not support our whole being or that the pandemic adaptations spoke more to how we wanted to do life all along.
We might feel guilty about this: Aren’t we effectively saying our pre-pandemic life was somehow wrong if we don’t want to resume it? We might even feel shame, thinking something must be wrong with us that we don’t want to return to the life we had before, exactly as it was. But it’s not a matter of right or wrong. There is no right or wrong, with the situation or with us. There is only what works for us in any given moment—and those moments are always changing, and we are always evolving. That’s called growth, and it’s a good thing. As uncomfortable and scary as we might imagine it to be, outside change is also good.
As always with self-examination and inquiry, and the discomfort it brings, there is an invitation for inner healing and transformation. Any inner distresses caused by outer provocations are likely wounds from formative periods and traumas that still cry out for the reparative salve of love, and we cannot love what we do not face. It means that we have to stop ignoring the unease before it becomes a disease, that we have to break the pattern of distraction from our discomfort, that we have to make the time to pause and listen with an open heart to what our deepest, truest self is asking of us, and that we have to be brave enough to say, “Yes!”
In truth, almost everything that happened during the pandemic was likely a trigger for some soul-level injury we’ve been ignoring for years or that we buried so deep we almost forgot it existed. My injury has always been self-doubt. My well-meaning parents, doing their best to keep me safe and free of suffering, often overrode my decisions or just outright chose for me. At least that’s how I remember feeling at the time. As a result, I grew up doubting my ability to make the best choices for myself. The usual failures and disappointments of adolescence and young adulthood reinforced that message.
Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself as a middle-aged man afraid to take major risks unless I know there’s a net to catch me. It’s the antithesis of faith—not blind faith, but the spiritual assurance that all is, and will always be, well, and that God will meet me at the point of my need. It was a message I had been preaching for years, but not living fully.
So I did what some might think was crazy: I decided to quit my full-time job as a church minister at a time when unemployment rates were at their highest since the Great Depression. I partnered with another minister and friend who was feeling much the same way as I was, and we launched a new online experience called project_SANCTUS, a safe and brave online space for us to support and inspire each other in living our holiest selves.
Now, I’m not advising anyone should quit their current jobs without knowing for sure that the next one will work out. When I shared my plans with my 20-year-old daughter, her first response was, “But my college tuition is good, right?” She was very supportive after I assured her that it was.
What I am inviting us all to know is that being true to ourselves by bringing our outer experience into alignment with the truth of our inner being is how we live our holiest self, how we experience true harmony and inner peace, how we live in and from love, how we experience fulfillment and abundance, how we show up as God. So for all our sakes, listen deeply, listen bravely and honestly, and answer the call. The world needs you, the whole you, now more than ever.
i am a black man
(Originally posted May 2021 on vocal.media)
i am a black man
smooth skin of brown
soft hair of ebony
ivory sliver of a smile
from an island green
on limestone white and red clay
surf’s blue sheen
golden sand and sun
memories of laughter and fun
i am a black man
now in a land
of heart thumping fear
when i see the lights in the rear
hands in sight
freeze don’t fight
resist the urge for flight
what is the color of fear?
the shade of belonging?
feeling blue they do not see my value
forgiveness is pink i think
embracing myself until the sickly slick sludge of
unworthiness and self-hatred dissipates
into warm hue
i choose love
i am a black man