A Call into the Great Healing

James Ishmael Ford

20 January 2013

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

Martin Luther King, Jr

I’ve mentioned before how when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, after the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one agent informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Coretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a pause. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to, “Find out what that dream was.”

What a question; really, what a wonderful question. What is the dream? What was Dr King’s dream? And with that, what is your dream? And mine? I suggest there are connections. And they lead to questions. What is the great dream that gathered our congregation three hundred years ago and built this Meeting House two hundred years ago, that continues to bring us to sit in these pews and inform us as we go out into our lives?

It can appear these are all so many different dreams. On the one hand, yes, of course, each of us in our lives following our individual north stars. But, also there is that one star, and like that, there is a way in which we share something big and wondrous, if always in part.

So, what is that dream, what is the dream that runs through all our hearts?

Dr King spoke to a large part of this dream within his work for racial justice. The universal must always be expressed within the particular. It’s one of those laws of the heart. Love is not found in general, it is always your love, it is always my love. In Dr King’s day the great clarion call out of the dream was racial justice – a call whose echoes we must not forget, even waiting on the second inaugural of our president Barack Obama, it is not over. The manifestation of that aspect of the dream is so sadly far from finished.

Similarly, we can see how right now the dream is informing our struggle for the full civil rights of the LGBT part of our community here in Rhode Island, where today so many of us are working so hard for marriage equality. Both dreams are parts of the great dream, struggles to birth into the world something so profound, so lovely.

And so the question, what is it that these struggles are manifestations of? What is the deep dream of the human heart that calls us to work for racial justice, to work for civil rights for gay and lesbian and transgendered people? Well, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr King sang it out to us. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Here we find the dream, the deep dream, dreamed into our lives across cultures and throughout time from the deepest place of our hearts, from the most profound knowing of our beings. This is the truth. We are all caught up together more intimately than words can ever convey.

And it really is a universal dream. No religion owns it, although all partake of it. And, honestly, some articulate it better and more completely, although also which is better is often a bit different for each of us. Recently a friend commented how while he found the Christian and Jewish and Muslim mystics speaking of all being one a valuable pointer on his own way to knowing the deepest, he found the Zen Buddhist expression not one, not two in fact a little more helpful. And there is something important in these different expressions. There are dynamics within our unity. It is not static. And so, in some ways Dr King’s expression of it being like a network can be more helpful. And then, sometimes we do find it more like a garment, the sense of our connection, our feeling quality of it, sometimes put on, sometimes dropped off.

I’ve recently been pointed to the work of the emergent church Christian theologian Brian McLaren, one of the new crop who along with Rob Bell are condemned by other Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians as universalists, or close enough so as not to make any real difference. I admit. Anyone accused of universalism is interesting to me – because, universalism is another way to speak of that great dream of our essential unity.

Anyway the Reverend McLaren was asked, well, what about the Unitarians, the Unitarian Universalists? In his response he was for the most part generous with us. He saw how we’ve walked away from the problematic assertions of the orthodox Christian church out of which we come, but also noted “a religious community (which) deconstructs without reconstructing will put it at a disadvantage.” That said, he also sees things going on, he sees us in the act of reconstructing, of finding our expression of the deeper truths, and joins with that other interesting Christian theologian who knows us well, John Cobb, observing how they believe “the best contributions of (the) Unitarians are in their future, and what they can be has not yet been fully manifested.”

I would say we’re further along in that reconstruction than they appear to think. We are beginning to articulate it in very interesting and, I believe with all my heart, useful and compelling ways. Some thirty years ago when the UU Women’s Federation began the conversation which would culminate in our current Statement of Principles and Purposes, not as a creed, something believed to be for ever and ever and which one must sign on to, to belong, but as something descriptive, a snapshot of what the larger number of us do see as deeply true and compelling, two assertions stand out. While I think each problematic by itself, taken together we have our way, our future, our unique and valuable expression of the ancient dream.

You, and you, and you, and me; each and every one of us are born precious and unique, a gift into the world. And, equally true, we are birthed out of and of the world, each of us related to everyone and everything. Here we have a new speaking of the great dream sometimes called one, sometimes called neither one nor two. We have found the secret of who we really are, or, rather some part of us saw it, spoke it, sang it, and we now can hear it, and we can from that hearing, live it. This is a way of life. It is a healing message, and a map for us to follow.

Here is “good news” worth proclaiming. And within this Meeting House, we do. It is the deep dream that drove Dr King into a lifetime struggle and even to an assassin’s bullet struggling for the full civil rights of people of African descent, who we know are our people, us. It is what drives many of us today to put it on the line in the struggle for full civil rights for gay and lesbian and transgendered people, who we know are our people, us. It is what calls so many of us to seek ways to resolve the turmoil of immigration in our country today, to bring people in from the shadows, and to the full possibilities of a healthy community, knowing they are our people, us.

Edgar Allan Poe, who visited this neighborhood as he was courting a Unitarian, and so I suspect may have sat in one of these pews at least on one occasion, observed “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” We dream this great dream from sleep and waking into reality week after week within this community.

And dreaming into reality, we find many concerns arising. Coming to know community and our own place. Raising our children. And work. Lots of it. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, seeking housing for those without homes, and helping to protect those in danger of losing their homes. And, most dangerously, also, out of that deep dream, asking why these things happen. Dreaming dreams, dreaming the dream, at night and during the day, and living it out into the world, our dangerous calling.

My experience is that we sometimes hear the word and it resonates and we know its truth. Mostly, however, we hear in part, something we hear or experience strikes us as true and it becomes a notion or intimation. It is a small flickering flame that needs fanning, careful encouragement into a great fire. And that’s another important part of why we are, we, this gathered community of religious liberals, come together. Here we find opportunities, things we can do pointing our minds and hearts toward our own ever-deeper experiences of the dream. Here I hold up our meditation groups and our chalice circles as very important aspects of our shared lives. Really important.

And, now, we’re offering another practice of pointing into the heart of who we are using our annual pledge drive, which we’ve heard is just beginning to organize. Here’s my own take on it, having sat with the crew putting it together. I think that as important as the money part of the project is, in fact the more important thing is that we’re being called to come together, to meet together, and to talk about our dreams and the great dream, to talk about why we are here. We are being called into presence.

I think it is so important for us to express our individual dreams, to compare them, and in that to find how they complement or even join together, and in that weaving to reveal the great dream, the ancient dream, the dream of connections so intimate as to make the world a garment of love, a garment of destiny.

Nothing less.

Let us join together in the great work, let us find in each other the great mystery, and in that finding, let us turn our feet toward that north star, and begin, continue our journey toward liberation, for ourselves, and for the many beings.

Just this.


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