Thursday, December 15, 2011

Proud to Be a Level Four Santa

I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in people.

Believe means different things, doesn’t it? And sometimes, we instantly know it. Like saying, “I believe in people.” Well, obviously, I’m not talking about existence, that seems to be a foregone conclusion. People exist.

“I believe in people” means something more, something positive.  The writers of the Bible would use a figure of speech called ellipsis, in which they would omit certain words for effect. It’s an unfinished circle, that we tend to automatically fill in with meaning.

So part of what I would fill in is that I believe in people, that they can be generous beyond your imagination, loving to complete strangers, extenders of awesome grace.

Santa Claus embodies this instinct we have toward compassion.

Children, if they are being raised by someone who loves them, assume this. If you tell a 3 year old “People are good and often want to help,” they will look at you blankly. Of course they are! In the same way they will always say that the bigger glass has more liquid in it than the short cup, no matter the opposing evidence, it is part of their logic that grownups are good people.

To tell a 45 year old the same thing is to invite debate, a debate that has raged for the ages, through the Christian scriptures, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and all those other “original sin” themed books they made us read in High School.

I am here to tell you – people are good. And they will overwhelm you with their willingness to make things better for others.

We share our belief in Santa Claus with our children. There are different levels to this, and so we divide it up into what we feel is developmentally appropriate for them to understand.

It astounds me that so many people stop at the first level. And at a certain point, they learn that it’s “wrong,” and that’s that. It’s done.

Don’t they know, it’s only the introduction!

Level One Santa is the symbolic embodiment into one person: he lives at the North Pole, says “Ho Ho Ho,” and comes down the chimney. He gives without ever expecting anything in return. He brings presents to children simply because he loves them.  Oh sure, there are rumors of coal in stockings … but no one actually knows anyone who got that.

Myths grow and become more personal in each family; ours is no exception. With our first, it was decided that it was appropriate to ask Santa for three things (which you may or may not get). Rather early on, our son decided that the things Santa brought that he didn’t ask for were always way better than the things he did. Thus began the tradition he passed down to his sisters. “Ask for two things, but leave it up to him for the third thing – he always knows better!” As the children get older, they tend to even go farther, only asking Santa for one thing, or even nothing. They are learning about trust – trust that if you are open, and willing, you may receive gifts beyond what you know to ask for.

It is an exciting time, with our Level One Santa kids. They go outside to find chewed up carrot tops left by the reindeer, they receive personal letters from Santa a couple of days before Christmas. All of we Level Twos or above are on alert – to listen to the conversations, the casual remarks, the longing looks. And somehow, that Santa inspiration comes through, when suddenly we know what to pull out of the magic bag. Christmas morning arrives and “How did he know I wanted this???”

A personal letter from Santa – all our children receive them, regardless of age. Santa talks about their past year, what he’s noticed, what to work on, how much he loves them.

And then, one year, when they’ve had a lot of questions, and it is right … they receive a letter telling them that on the day after Christmas, they are to reach under their pillow, and there will be a special letter there that answers all their questions.

They are ready to become Level Twos.

Level Two is where you become privy to the giant mystery, the fabulous conspiracy that is Santa. You are entrusted with the secret, that Santa is SO much bigger than you imagined, that you, in fact, get to be Santa, too. The entire framework is laid out and you can see how far-reaching it is, how much more profound it is than a man coming down a chimney. People are so wonderful, that all over the world, they will go to great lengths to ensure that others have a magical Christmas. NORAD … the North American Aerospace Defense Command! – puts up video and a website so that families all over the world can track Santa’s progress. People go to the post office to pick up letters from children who have written to Santa, to actually fill some of those requests, out of their own wallet! Movies made, books written, collections taken up, all to make magic for the most powerless among us. Children.

To become a Level Two is not automatic. It is a choice. You may decide to just close the door, believe that “there is no Santa Claus.” Or you can make the choice to join in, to become a Level Two Santa.

A Level Two is someone who supports the Santa Claus efforts, promoting the wonder, keeping the mystery. Level Twos learn to listen intently, while looking casual; they pay attention to such things as what kind of thing a child plays with, what characters they like, their favorite colors.  They themselves make magic, helping to put out the gifts on Christmas Eve, eating a cookie (but leaving crumbs on a plate).

Level Three is when you become Santa for the child in your life – your daughter, your nephew, your grandchild. You give, and receive no credit. No thank-you’s.  It’s worth it, to be part of this magic.

Level Four is when you become Santa for someone not as close – an elderly neighbor, a friend, a stranger, a name on a tree. The recipient can’t know who you are, of course. If they did, you wouldn't be Santa. So there is much whispering and giggling; it is an appropriate time for secrets and ringing doorbells and running away.  And yes, you can become a Level Four before becoming a Level Three!

Level Five is the top. This is the person who becomes the embodiment of Santa (or Mrs. Claus) themselves. They put on, or grow, the beard, put on the red hat, perfect their Ho-Ho-Ho.  They wave from parades, hold squirming babies on their laps for pictures.  

Too old for Santa Claus? Ah, no. For us, the question is, “Is Jane old enough for Santa Claus?” As a Level One, she only knows the door. It’s a beautiful, magical door … but beyond it lies grandeur and awe she can’t even imagine.

And she is a part of it all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lizard Eater, Master of Divinity

I am graduating from seminary tomorrow, friends. Saturday morning.

In August 2004, two things began. My seminary experience, and Little Wren, growing in my belly.

To say I had no idea what would happen with those two things is quite the understatement. Such changes in both, such changes in me. But we survived. My seminary, my daughter, and me. We all survived.

I have attended an evangelical seminary. My first semester, I resigned myself to "flying under the radar." I told friends, and myself, that it was like learning a foreign language. "I don't have to believe Monsieur Thibaux est un ingénieur," I explained, "I just have to learn to say he is."

I stopped seminary, temporarily, I thought, to have Little Wren. I prepared to go back, and shortly before it was time, my world cracked in two. My little baby girl was diagnosed with cancer.

"I will never go back," I told a friend, flatly. I had nothing to say. Why would I be a minister?

But Spirit wants what it wants. Little Wren healed, and I healed. I went back to school.

And then ... it was back. Cancer.

I stopped seminary again. We did cancer again. She healed, I healed. I went back to school.

Okay, that's not exactly the timeline. She healed. I went back to school. I healed. Yes, that's a more accurate representation.

I found my voice. And I found nurturing professors who encouraged me to use that voice. No, I did not have to believe Monsieur Thibaux was an engineer. Explain to them why it was not so, give sources, make educated statements.

They learned more about what a Unitarian Universalist is. And I learned that "evangelical" is most definitely not synonymous with "fundamentalist." I have been surrounded by people who are not homophobic, nor judgmental. I have been surrounded by professors who genuinely live their faith in a way that is awe-inspiring to me.

Along the way, through this blog, I became friends with people, people who reached out to me, wept with me, encouraged me, mentored me. Friends who saw my heart be broken, read words that said I would never go into the ministry, never return to seminary. Friends who were there when I said, "I'm going back to seminary."

You shared your stories with me. Your own stories of cancer, of seminary, of family, of hard times, of good times. In the same way that seminary shaped me, you shaped me. Your stories have become a part of me.

They call it "ministerial formation." It's seminary, and preaching, and life, and CPE, and internship, and all the other things that help you find your identity as a religious professional.

So many of you have formed me. Fussed at me, argued with me, laughed with me, made me feel loved.

I love you, too.

Friday, December 02, 2011

On love and tamales

There are certain things that transcend the sense of "the stranger." One is fishing. Anywhere I've ever gone,  meeting a fellow fan of bait and tackle means that immediate conversation is possible. It usually starts with "Any luck today?" followed by discussions of what they're biting on, what spots are dry, and such. Now, there are certain protocols that are followed. One would never drop line right next to that person, poaching on their territory. Unless invited to, of course. A large cooler of beer you're willing to share makes that incident more probable.

The other arena in which strictures against talking to strangers, and especially someone who is "not like you," are dropped is cooking. Age, culture, even language, are no barriers to two cooks talking.

We are having a tamalada tomorrow, making lots of tamales for the holidays. I went to the Mexican mega-mart today to load up on heavy bags of wet masa, manteca de puerco, and corn husks. An older Mexican woman peeked at my cart and said, "Oh, you're making tamales!" We wound up talking for about 15 minutes, exchanging recipes and ideas. I, of course, came out much the richer for it. Cooks do not mind being bossy with each other. I told her that I was going to cut a few corners this year -- using ground chile rather than roasting my own peppers, that sort of thing. She directed me over to an unfamiliar can of sauce, used for enchiladas, and told me how to doctor it up for my pork filling. We parted, each giving advice -- she telling me that I can make spinach tamales without having to cook the filling first (use frozen spinach), and me encouraging her to tell her adult son that if he wants tamales, well, he better get over to her house and start spreading masa. "Have good holidays!" she called after me.

The BFF-DRE is coming over, after a church meeting. Not that she had much of a choice. Her boys are tamale-making fiends, and I think they were coming with or without her. Making tamales together has now become one of our holiday traditions. One year, we convinced our church cooking group to make tamales as a fundraiser. We took orders for traditional pork tamales, turkey mole tamales, vegetarian black bean and cotija cheese tamales, vegan chipotle bean tamales, sweet potato tamales.

We had orders for over a 100 dozen.

Late Saturday night of that tamalada, we were all near tears. "I just can't make anymore," our friend T cried, throwing up her hands. Sometimes you have to know when to throw in the towel. Nonetheless, I think we'd made about 98 dozen. We gave apologies to a few people who didn't get their full orders. Everyone was very nice about it.

But we never did that again.

Certain things you do for love, not money, even if the money is going to go to something you love. Tamales are one. Fishing, too.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gasoline on the Burning Bush

To have a passion is a one thing. It can be a source of soul-satisfying vision, or it can be a crazy-making force.

Sometimes, both at the same time.

But when you have others … others who share your passion, who can see your vision and they get it, they cheer it on, just as you cheer theirs … really, there’s not much better, is there?

The Hysteric Cleric,  Rev. Sunflower, Rev. Soulful and SpongeBobbi, and I, all flew from our different cities across the country to a missional church conference. Poppa Bear couldn’t join us, but he was following our trek, commenting on various things we posted.

The conference was great. Rev Sunflower and I tweeted and facebooked like mad, all the great “YEAH!” quotes we were hearing. (Apologies to our friends. You may have your facebook page back now. Please don’t unfriend us.)

But for me, equally important were the times when we broke bread afterwards, discussing what we heard at our different workshops, compared notes, tested theories, discussed how they’d look in our context.

One message that is stressed amongst those seeking to do missional work is the need to have a supportive network. Because there’s no paradigm. The missional movement is a new movement, and there are but a few working examples. We’re learning, experimenting, sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding, all as we go.

One of those great things I heard about was the need for leaders, when they learn of a member’s “burning bush,” to pour gasoline on it. Pour gasoline on the source of their passion.

As we wrestled with different ideas, the flame of my vision expanded. Thank you friends, for the gasoline.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A little revision to the old joke

During a worship service a man began to be moved by the Spirit.
Out loud he said “Amen!”  He tweeted to his friends "This service is rocking! #FirstUU = awesome!” People around him were a little disturbed.
Then louder he said, “Hallelujah!”  On Facebook, he tapped out, “Hallelujah! Great message today!” A few more people were becoming disturbed.
During the prayer, he shouted “Praise Jesus!” During the meditation, he texted his mother. "Rev D talked about anger. I'm sorry re: this a.m. Please forgive me. I <3 U."
An usher moved quickly down the aisle. He bent over and whispered to the man, “Sir! Control yourself! Put that away! We are having church here!”
The man exclaimed, “I can’t help it. I got religion!!!”
To which the usher responded, “Well you didn’t get it here!”

Friday, September 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, David. Were you glad you were born?

More memories. We just passed the 40th anniversary of when David Vetter was born.

Known in the press as David the Bubble Boy.

He and I lived in the same area. I didn't know him, but several of my friends did. For a while, he "took" classes at our school. And some of the kids "played" at his house.

A lot of quotation marks there. I guess it means he "lived" to be 12 years old.

In that "your friends are my friends" way of understanding community that kids have, all of us felt connected to David. We followed the stories, we were protective of David (even if some felt he was kind of a pill) and his sister. We didn't understand the big picture, we just knew that he was trapped. We thought it was a pretty bum deal.

I won't get into the whole story. You can read it here. I will sum it up by saying it tells what happens when you put science first, and ethics second. It's a damn heartbreaking story.

I remember when he died. I was a freshman in High School, at home by myself. This being a local story, they broke in on the tv and gave the news. I remember they said he died of a heart attack, I don't know why -- I guess because they didn't actually know the cause of death yet. I turned off the tv. I turned on the radio. Total Eclipse of the Heart was playing. Crying, I danced, giant leaps around the living room. I was 14, but I knew that David had never been able to have even that little freedom. I remember thinking I was dancing for David.

His doctors are celebrating. They say his life and death meant life for many others. They say profound scientific knowledge came from the science experiment that was his life.

David, was it worth it?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I am Troy Davis

Andy asks, "Do you remember the day you were able to really comprehend what the death penalty meant?"

I don't remember that, but I do remember when I realized that an innocent person could be put to death. I remember the dawning horror of realizing that the government, my government, the police and all the "good guys" could, not accidentally, but deliberately and with malice, make it happen, even when they knew the person was innocent.

I was in high school, and Clarence Brandley, who lived in my town, was on death row.

My brother was a young lawyer following the case. He told us about all the details that were coming to light -- the racism, the destroying evidence, how those in power conspired to bring this about.

I think it was the first time for me to really understand systemic evil.

Do you think the "collateral loss" of some innocent people being put to death is worth it? I mean, we know it happens.

Some think that's an acceptable loss.

I don't. I can't.

Clarence Brandley, no thanks to the system, yes thanks to many civil rights activists, was eventually exonerated and set free.

Troy Davis was not.

For further information, see The Innocence Project

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My Pond is Gone

I haven't been to my pond since May, partially because of CPE, but mainly because it's been so beastly hot. Hottest August on record, they say.

We got a cool front. It will be gone by this afternoon, so I pulled on my shoes and as soon as the children were out the door, I slipped out. Ah. Sweet coolness.

I got there, walked down the hill ...

My pond is gone.

I know they say this is one of the worst droughts we've had in decades, but it still hit me like the cliched ton of bricks. Where I used to watch minnows swim and see the occasional splash of a larger fish, is a field. Only a puddle remains.

I walked around the far edge, toward where the water was deeper.

Splat! A bird pooped on my head.

"In some cultures, this is considered good luck," I muttered grimly, wiping it off.

I walked farther. A bit of the pond remains and it was filled, filled with cranes and ... pelicans? Not pelicans, but some type of pink bird. Which means it has come from some place else.

My phone rang. It was the husband. His best friend and his family just had to evacuate their house from the wildfires to the north of us.  More wildfires are burning through the state park where I went to so many family reunions. The small town where my mother grew up during WWII.

One of the top search strings that leads people to this blog is "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." For a panentheistic, process-theology, Jesus-inspired UU, that works just fine. We are interwoven in all of that, and yet there is also a power far beyond our control.

I continue walking ... it's possible to do that, with a broken heart.

I walk down to my favorite little part, where the turtles used to poke up their heads, then furiously splash away if I blinked. My turtles ... Now, it is just dry, cracked earth.

I turn the corner and a giant bunny, as big as my fat old cat at home, bounces across the path and into the woods. I've never seen a rabbit here, and though I know it speaks to the dry conditions, still, I am thrilled by the gift.

I go home. I take a shower with clean water. I go to my refrigerator and cold, filtered water fills my glass.

I drink it, reverently.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Religion Should Be Delicious

First, I read the short version of Lillian Daniel's essay about "Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me," that is making the rounds.

Part of me, I must confess, had that triumphant, "Yeah, what SHE said!" feeling. And then, rather quickly, I felt ... quite uncomfortable. Was sneering at someone else's sneering the way to go?

And it kept sitting with me.

Then, I read the longer version. And felt heart-achingly sad.

A man sits next to her. He tells her his story. Of going to a church where he's not supposed to ask questions. Then going to a church that defines God in such a rigid way, he can't make it fit with his reasoning about the divine.

Then, he finds a church that is like a big warm hug. He fits. But when he goes through the pain of divorce, backs turn. It is his wife's church, he discovers.

Disillusioned, hurt, he begins sleeping in, reading the NY Times, taking long walks. He finds God in the trees and the cicadas. He describes himself as deeply spiritual, but not religious.

Me, I would call that healing. Daniels does not.

After having his intellect, his sense of God's love, and trust in human relationships all abused, we should say, Sorry, Bucko, you should have gone to another church? Tried harder?

Are you kidding?

Yes, I know there are plenty of folks out there, shallowly tralalaing about being spiritual but not religious. They fit with "self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating."

Don't you understand that these are the people who most need us?

I can't judge them because I recognize my own demon in it. The demon that tells me that if I buy these storage bins or watch this documentary or read this book, my life will be better. I struggle with this demon, over and over, but I sure do like my toys... 

We are needed. But here's the deal: we haven't shown that our way -- the religious life -- is better. In fact, as in the case of the man on the airplane, we've often shown the opposite.

I don't spank my kids, for many reasons. But I'm also pragmatic. I've watched the families where the parents do spank their kids, and if their children were better behaved, heck, I would have considered it. But they weren't.

By your fruits you will know them.

I have a minister friend who is a runner. He talks about the difference it makes in his life. And his life backs him up -- he is physically healthy, and it obviously helps him, spiritually and mentally. Because of this, I'm trying out running as a spiritual practice.

In A Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou writes about loving God:
I am asked if I love an orange; I answer I never tasted of one; but then I am told I must love the orange for what it is! Now I ask, is it possible for me either to like or dislike the orange, in reality, until I taste it? Well, I taste of it and I like it. Do you like it? says my friend. Yes I reply, its flavor is exquisitely agreeable. But that will not do, says my friend; you must not like it because its taste is agreeable, but you must like it because it is an orange. If there be any propriety in what my friend says, it is out of my sight.

We have not made our case. First, we have to let people know: If you come to this church, your life and the world you affect, will be better.

And if we can't say that ... then close up shop. Take a walk in the woods.

Going to church should transform you. Going to church should make your life better, and because of your transformation, should make the world you impact better.

I understand the complaints about a consumer-driven culture that affects our attitude about church. But goshdarnitall, we have to give people a reason to go to church. 

I have a friend, a local missional pastor here in my town. His little church is Christian, so they have communion. Every so often, they do it with cake. Why? Because they believe religion should be delicious.

Religion should be delicious. No, not like "deep-fried appetizers," but deeply, soul-satisfyingly delicious. Which means struggling with hard questions, fighting and panting, but knowing the next day, for our struggles, we will be renamed Israel. Delicious, like the pride a parent feels for their child who ventures out, making their first theological pronouncement. Delicious, like sunsets and beaches and walks through the woods. 

Is your church delicious? Does it provide opportunities for spiritual transformation? Does it encourage you to transform the world? If it does all that, you should be out there, letting everyone know. You should light the way so that others, caught in the grip of the demon culture that says we can buy meaning, purchase fulfillment, may find their salvation. And if your church is not delicious, you should damn well either make it delicious or find another one. Because we are needed. Desperately needed.

You say you're spiritual but not religious? 

Come sit by me. I want to hear your story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Take Me to the Water

"Take me to the water ... to be baptized."

I could not go to the waters I normally travel to each summer. For one thing, I was working full time plus, as a hospital chaplain. For another, it has been sold. Some other family goes there now.

I reached the end of my CPE summer and felt the call to come to the waters. There will always be water to refresh you. And I was hot, hot to the very core of my being. I'd drive to the park and ride, and it was already hot. Board the bus, walk a couple of blocks to the rail. Hot, steamy, even in an air-conditioned train car. A block to the hospital. Walking around, one end of the hospital to the other, clothed in a suit, because it's a formal type of place. Sweating through my blouses. Time to go, out to the even hotter day now, the rail, the bus, the car that has baked all day in the sun. Home, but the a/c couldn't keep up with this insane summer. Ice water on the inside, cold showers on my skin, it didn't matter. I couldn't get cool.

I knew where to go.

About 2 1/2 hours from my house, there is a giant pool, fed by natural cold springs. As a child, we would take trips and I would swim there. When my mother was a child, so did she. So did her parents, and her grandparents. Perhaps even those before them. I feel that the very molecules of my body, the genetic material I have inherited, somehow carried those experiences and cried out for me to come to the water. To the cold, cold waters, to be refreshed and replenished.

We didn't tell the children where we were going. Friday, as I left for my last day at the hospital, I left them a scavenger hunt of things to find ... sunblock, swim suits, goggles ... They were madly curious. The coast? The place where I often preach, or their grandmother's home? Nope, we told them. And that was all.

We played tantalizing music on the way, as they cudgeled their brains. Take Me to the Water, Take Me to the River, Old Black Water ...

And then we were there. We slipped on the algae-covered bottom, took deep intakes of breath as the cold hit us, quickly going the very center of our being. So hot all summer long, now we looked up at the small clouds that made it overcast and asked them to part so the sun could come through.

We swam together, somersaulting under the water, showing off strokes, floating and looking up at the clouds. I left them in the shallow for a bit, their father smiling knowingly at me as I took off for the deeper waters. I swam, I dove underneath, I was refreshed, revived, replenished, recovered. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and more, as they swam here, in this same place, at a different time. They came together in me and we were held in the healing waters.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Loved Into Being

I'm tired. I'm tired the way you are at the end of your CPE summer. Ministers, can I get an 'amen'?

But RevTony's post about his wonderful experiences with DBLE and HeartPaths Spirituality Centre prompt me to write. He blogs that those places were "an environment that made me feel appreciated, loved and cared for as a child of God" and that "what enables people to achieve any type of emotional and spiritual healing is that first and foremost they feel accepted, welcomed and loved...Learning can happen at anytime, but perhaps deep, internalized insight can only happen when we are loved."

Jim, who also did CPE this year, wrote about his CPE center, and his appreciation that they used a "collegial educational model, rather than believing that CPE students should be treated rather like soup ingredients that must be thoroughly chopped into small pieces before they can be of any use."

Amen, my brother.

I wound up at a center that was, from the top down, a nurturing, strengthening, affirming culture. Which didn't mean they held our hands ... no, we were thrown out into the big scary ocean straight away. But they cheered us on, answered our questions, and treated us with the respect of being full chaplains. It truly was a loving culture.

I learned, oh, how I learned. I received formation. Lots and lots of formation. I am a different, stronger minister than I was at the start of summer.

But along with that ... I did a lot of healing this summer. From those who have followed along since the cancer years, yes, a lot of healing from that time. The fact that I journeyed with my daughter through two bouts of cancer did affect my pastoral care, and many times, it was a help in connecting with patients. I am no longer resentful that the universe may, in some way, benefit from her illness. Was it worth it? No, of course not, but what does that matter? When sitting with someone hurting, needing my pastoral presence, I will use all the tools I have been given.

One of my heroes is the Rev. Fred McFeely Rogers. Also known as Mr. Rogers.

When receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys, he used his time to ask everyone to take a moment and remember "those that loved you into being."

I feel that I had the amazing fortune to wind up in a hospital with people that helped love me into being. Come to think of it, my life has almost always had that fortune.

I hope I may do the same for others. Because I am one to whom much has been given. With love, anyway. Undeserved, unasked for. In a word, grace.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Could Your Church Support a Mission?

So, let me tell you my fantasy.

My fantasy is that we come up with a sustainable model for minister-planted Unitarian Universalist churches.

Right now, our main model is for a minister, capable of living very frugally, and with a supportive spouse, to plant churches on his or her own dime, right? Commendable, but not a sustainable model if we want to have churches popping up around the country.

Which I do.

Christian churches support “missions.” They put money, people, and resources toward sending out missionaries to areas of need. This is part of the Great Commission, they believe. The missionaries return home and give exciting reports about what they’re accomplishing, church members go on mission trips to dig wells, build schools, and meet the members of the local mission. The members are spiritually fed by this, and they make that little pocket of the world better.

Here’s my fantasy.

A UU church – probably one of the larger ones in town – decides to support a Mission. They hire a missionary, a person trained in ministry and missional church planting, and call him or her “Associate Minister.” They allocate funds so that the minister can start a church on a shoestring budget. This missionary/minister goes into a community and plants a church, a church that will do missional work, because we say that we are a religion of deeds not creeds.

The missionary/minister doesn’t go to Uganda or Honduras. This m/m goes … across town. Across town, not to a wealthy area, not to an educated area, not to any of the areas bearing demographics of “People Like Us.” Because this is Mission. The m/m goes to the area of the greatest need because – and this is key – because the sponsoring church truly believes that Unitarian Universalism has a lifesaving message and the members of the church truly believe that they are charged with realizing The Beloved Community and accepting their role in creating it.

The minister/missionary sets up a Satellite Church, returning “home” occasionally, being an associate minister. The senior minister (and other ministers, if the church has more) occasionally comes out to the Satellite Mission, preaching and lending support. Members of the Home Church go out to do things in the neighborhood of the Satellite Mission … planting flowers, helping an area school, helping. Caring.

I’ve written before about shalom, about the fullness of the word. Wholeness. Wholeness of body, mind, economics, spirit. I believe in working toward shalom – wholeness – for all. I can see a church that devotes resources to helping “the least of these” get closer to wholeness … feeding the hungry, offering tutoring, teaching English, making a neighborhood safer, extending friendship to the lonely and giving inclusive, love-based food for the spirit. And finding that in doing so, they themselves were being made more whole.

That’s my fantasy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Never What You Think

It’s a half hour past midnight here.

I went to bed at 10 pm and enjoyed two blissful hours of sleep before being awakened by the phone. There was the initial disorientation – where am I? What time is it? Why is my husband not in bed? Followed by slightly less disorientation (emphasis on ‘slightly’) as my muddled brain tried to understand why the phone rang. It was midnight. Therefore, my brain came up with the most logical answers it could, operating on CPE sleep-deprivation:

a) Something has happened to my parents.
b) Something has happened to my son (off at debate camp).
c) My husband has become another person, one who not only is having an affair, but is having one with someone so ditzy she called his house at midnight.

I grudgingly decided to face reality, whichever horrible one it was, and got up. I could hear the husband’s voice, still talking on the phone, coming from upstairs. Odd. Then I noticed a tennis racket lying on the living room floor.

“Husssband?” I called, fearfully.

He came to the railing. “I’m talking to my sister.”

My brain instantly leapt to worrying that something had happened to his mom, for a very tense second, until I remembered that she was sound asleep on the futon in our gameroom and wouldn’t it be really weird if his sister knew something happened to her before we did?

As I stood there, my brain creakily turning, my eyes landed again on the tennis racket.

The Husband was leaning on the railing again. “There’s a bat in the house.”

NEVER what you think!

As my husband stayed up late working on the computer, he became aware of a black thingy flying around the living room. Not hobbled by 2 hours of blissful sleep, it didn’t take long for him to determine what it was. He called his sister, the wildlife biologist, who then called him back to tell him the best thing to do was kill it with a tennis racket, then carefully place it in a garbage bag and take it to be tested for rabies.

In the meantime, it disappeared.

After checking the girls’ rooms, he stuffed towels under the doors so Mr. Bat couldn’t crawl into their rooms (stuffed them under Mother-In-Love’s door, too). He’s tucked me away in our room. Just get some sleep, he generously told me.

Sure, babe.

So, I’m googling about whether you can get a preventative rabies shot (yes) and wondering if I can get one at my hospital workplace tomorrow.

Never what you think.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"No one laughs at God in a hospital ..."

I've been praying a lot lately. Holding the hands of young and old, strong, weak, even paralyzed. "Know your audience, know your purpose," my CPE supervisor/teacher/role model, Rev. Dr. Strong Love, instructs.

Audience: Catholic? Then I will pray Father-Son-Holy-Spirit. Baptist? Thank you, my evangelical seminary, for giving me my Baptist trinity, "Our Creator, Our Redeemer, and Our Sustainer." Jewish? Y'varekh'kha ADONAI v'yishmerekha, I offer.

Purpose ... it is not mine to decide the purpose. I have learned to ask the person who wants the prayer, what is most on your heart right now? Upon what do you want me to focus this prayer? Sometimes, what they say aligns with what I assumed -- Please let the surgery go well and let me be healed. Often, though, it's different. No matter what happens, let my family be okay with it.

Together, we pray for peace. I ask that doctors and nurses be given wisdom and skill. I pray that the person feel God's presence.

Occasionally when I am guest-preaching somewhere, a person will come up and introduce themselves and reference this blog. (And thank you for that -- I love meeting you in "real life.") Last year, this stunning young woman did that, then left me with a remarkable gift, telling me that something I had written about prayer affected her, and helped her.

We share our journeys, rarely knowing how, or if, our struggles will affect someone else's journey. We just never can know ... you know? I have a CPE classmate who is normally rather quiet, but when he speaks, his words often offer wisdom I can use. I am greedy, which I have told him, and I want more. Even if it's not profound, even if it's 'stupid' ... because the Spirit uses all sorts of things, significant and trivial, to take root in the psyche of another.

I only pray when the patient or family requests it. I have no interest in a perfunctory "this is what a chaplain does" sort of thing. You allow me into your room, I give you a prayer (whether you want it or not). Be sure and tip your nurse on the way out.

But they do request it. A nurse starts to come into the room. "Please give us just a moment," I tell her. The family, or I and just the patient, bow our heads and attempt to connect with each other, and with something outside ourselves.

I went to follow up with a patient I'd had a good talk with the day before. The transformation in her, this day, was stark and heartbreaking. Like a child, she was curled up on her side, her head flat, no pillow, in the dark. I crouched down so our faces were just a few inches apart. "They opened me up. There is cancer. I don't want to talk. I don't want to talk. Just, please, pray."

I prayed. My two hands around the one that she extended to me, I prayed with everything I had that she feel Spirit, that she receive comfort, and peace. Yes Jesus, she murmured at certain parts, please God, at others. Amen, we said together, our voices faint whispers floating off like the smoke of an extinguished candle in that dark institutional room.

Related Posts:
Power of Prayer? Or Not ... 
Power of Prayer ... Three Years Later
Praying Out Loud

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Yes. Intense.

If I don't blog about something, does it really happen?

I have been neck-deep in summer CPE, while writing a research paper for a May Intensive class. I overdid it this past Spring, I will confess. 16 hrs, plus the Intensive, so, 19 hrs. But it's lightened my load for the Fall and made some other things possible. Like graduating in December.

So, this is my first truly free weekend. All the other weekends have been taken over by either working on the paper or doing a hospital on-call, or both.  Free, free! 

CPE, "Clinical Pastoral Education" is intense. 9 hours a day at the hospital + 3 1/2 hours of travel time. I devoutly wish I were one of those people who can get by on 6 hours of sleep a night, but I need 7 minimum. So, not a lot of margin. But better now. I have time to eat dinner with my family, play a little guitar, do whatever CPE reading is required that week. I travel to and from work via park-n-ride, bus, and rail. ("Trains, buses, and automobiles.") On the bus, I can also do a little reading.

I have a great family, so it works. No, really. They've pretty much astounded me. The Husband and I come home to a clean house, happy children all working together to put dinner on the table. We're not sure we're letting the 15 year old go back to school in the Fall.

CPE ... touching, hard, amazing. I wish I could tell you all the specifics, but to protect everyone's privacy, I'll just give you some vague, shadowy pictures. I've had some incredibly touching experiences, like the about-to-be-widowed wife who said, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here," when I walked into the room. And who later, after everything had been turned off, turned to me and said, "You just don't know how good you are at this."

You know what I had done? Stood in the corner, silent.

Holy moments.

The Muslim man, grieving his own situation, who taught me "Hamdu Lillah!"

The older woman whom I asked if I could hug, and who sagged in my embrace.

Heartbreaking moments, too. Coming face to face with what I already know, that life is not fair, but knowing it doesn't make it easier.

A big part of CPE is learning about yourself. I am still in the process, so I can't draw any real conclusions yet, but one thing that did surprise me is how I have the person I was, when I was about 20, and the person I am now, at 42. I have grown up, which hopefully is no surprise, but I realized that in my head, I still think I'm my fluffy-headed younger self.

As my CPE supervisor says, what we tell ourselves about ourself does not always match reality.

I am following along, as best I can, all my friends who are at GA. OH HOW I WISH I were there. Thank you, blogging peeps on the ground, letting me know your experiences there. It means a lot.

I'm with you in Spirit.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Into the Boiling Acid

I am starting CPE tomorrow, my peeps. Clinical Pastoral Education. For 400+ hours, I will learn about pastoral care, examine what and why I do things, and minister. Minister. Walk with a family down to the morgue. Sit with someone who is dying. Or her father is. Or her child.

I am scared to death.

I am looking forward to it.

I am dreading it.

And yet ... I asked myself how I would feel if I got a phone call that it had been canceled? That I had all summer free to just laze around, read books, sway in a hammock?

I'd be dreadfully disappointed.

My minister friends call it "pastor boot camp." They say it is formative. Transformative. At the end of this summer, I will be better able to walk into a situation and minister, be there for someone who needs me.

I acknowledge all that. I'm sure that it the end of the summer, I will be grateful for the experience. But on this end of the equation ...

Well, it's kinda like someone says to you they're going to drop you in a vat of boiling acid. For 400 hours. But at the end of it, when they pull you out, you'll have the body and appearance of a supermodel!


Bring it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nobody Puts Internet in a Corner

I’m not sure we get it. How utterly the Internet has changed life. Maybe we can’t, because we’re right in the middle of it.

It has been compared to the invention of the printing press, and that’s fair, but I think it’s something that has affected so much, we still aren’t quite getting it. We can chase back all the creeping tendrils … how it has transformed commerce, communication, education … but we still can’t fully grasp the big picture. Perhaps, 50 years from now, sociologists can explain it. Maybe they’ll be able to sum up how small it has made the world, and yet how large in possibility. Many of the people getting married, at least the weddings I’m officiating, met via Internet. They said that the revolution would be televised, but television didn’t cause the revolution, didn’t enable it. Internet is.

Mothers are sharing breastmilk because of the internet, you can help a shopkeeper in Guatemala get a loan because of the internet. When your heart is breaking, and you feel you are weeping alone, you can tweet or Facebook or blog and a whole community weeps with you.

I remember when the Internet had been created, but the World Wide Web had not. I had a geeky boyfriend in college, and he’d show me his computer and these message boards where he connected with other geeky types. His bulky computer was in a dark corner of his apartment, and he’d check it, oh, maybe once a day. Maybe.

How many of our churches are still acting as if that is the Internet? Something people keep in a corner and maybe check once a day. So you should have a church website, with your address and service times, you know.

My kids have a book on the human body with thick, transparent pages so you can see all the different “layers” of the body. The circulatory system. The nervous system.

The Internet has added another layer, another dimension, if you will, to life. It’s not something separate. We pull out our smartphones without a thought, sharing where we are with others who might want to join us, checking email, popping on Twitter or Facebook to see what other friends are doing. And that’s just in the two minutes we’re standing in line to pick up movie tickets. We don’t even think anything about it. It’s simply how we are, now.

The night of that day when Gabby Giffords was shot, many of us who would be preaching the next morning posted to each other on Facebook. “Are you changing your sermon? What are you going to say?” Peacebang opened up a chatroom and we mingled there, to share both our emotions, and the ideas and materials we would use the next day. I wrote about Holly Near’s I am Willing; someone else found a youtube of it; the next day, several ministers either quoted it, or, if they had good voices, sang it. That’s just one example of the inspiration that came out of that “room” that night. Perhaps what was more powerful, though, was not the readings, or quotations, or songs that shared, but our very humanness. We gathered in community. When we left that room, we were strengthened to minister.

Oh, I could go on and on with my examples of how the Internet has changed life. But they are my experiences. Internet, like most things, is a conversion experience. Until you’ve been a part of a blogging community, or found your Tweeps, or become the person who just automatically checks Facebook several times a day, you don’t understand.

Some say that we have Internet fatigue, and our churches need to be a sanctuary from that. No electronic devices, please. I think there will be a niche for that, just as there are people who respond to the unprogrammed Quaker meetings.

For many others, who have grown up texting and tweeting, that will hold no appeal. It will be as if you said, “Come inside, but don’t use your sense of smell.”

But oh what opportunity. There was a time when ministers wondered how church could stay connected past Sunday, how it could continue to impact their lives throughout the week. Were we to point blank ask God to create a vehicle to assist in that, I am not sure she could have done better than this labyrinth of wires and metal.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Psalmic Response

It seems that the last 24 hours has been taken up with processing the death of Osama bin Laden. With that, has come critique on all sides about that process. Or as one mom says to Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom, "You're doing it wrong."

I'm not opposed to critique, I hope that it allows us to adjust back and forth until we find what is the right way for us, as individuals, and as a nation. I am concerned about the shaming I've seen.

But as I've always said on this blog, I'm a fan of the real. What do you really feel? And I think most people are like that. I think that when we've felt offended, it was because we thought someone wasn't showing their deep feelings. The person chanting, as though at a football game -- was that their deep, introspective response, or were they caught up in group aspect? The person saying they grieved the death of any person -- was that genuine, or were they expressing what they thought they should feel?

Someone posted on twitter the John Donne quote about how "each man's death diminishes me." I must admit, I turned to The Husband and said, "I don't feel diminished by the death of Osama bin Laden."
Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon,
         There we sat down and wept,
         When we remembered Zion.
 Upon the willows in the midst of it
         We hung our harps.
That sock in the gut of watching the planes fly into the towers. That instant fear from those of us who had loved ones up in the air right then. The overwhelming panic trying to locate New York and Washington friends. I remember, after hours and hours of watching frantic friends and family members walking around New York with pictures of their missing ones, "Have you seen him? Have you seen her?" they implored on CNN, I remember turning the tv off and, exhausted, heart broken into dust, saying, "I just can't watch any more. I just can't cry any more."

We hung our harps on trees. We could not imagine singing ever again.

We had been in a fairy tale land where acts of terrorism didn't really affect us, and when they did, it was often terrorism that came from within. That was shattered. When we went to bed, we didn't know what would happen the next day. We were terrorized. We stocked up on duct tape and thick plastic for the vents in our homes, we were afraid to open any envelope.
Psalm 74
The enemy has damaged everything within the sanctuary.
Your adversaries have roared in the midst of Your meeting place...
They said in their heart, "Let us completely subdue them."...
  We do not see our signs;
There is no longer any prophet,
Nor is there any among us who knows how long.
  How long, O God, will the adversary revile,
And the enemy spurn Your name forever?
   Why do You withdraw Your hand, even Your right hand?
From within Your bosom, destroy them!
We wanted justice, we wanted revenge. We began doing the math, adding up the situation, realizing our part in it, realizing our actions had a hand in creating our destruction. It became complicated.

And the videos. Just when we began to relax, a bit, bin Laden would release another video, taunting us, the murderer letting us know he could still find us, still get us.

Years pass.

On Sunday night, when the news came, I was glad. Not for the death, but because he had been stopped. I think that most people who admit to being glad feel this. It's not the death, it's that he has been found and stopped. Certainly, there are others behind him who may continue in the terror. But not he.

I posted on Facebook "Psalm 18:37-40." I did this in no triumphant way. I thought it expressed something very human, and something some of us were feeling. The relief that we do have some measure of control. That we are not just fearful things that can be terrorized and refuse to respond.
I pursued my enemies and overtook them,
         And I did not turn back until they were consumed.
 I shattered them, so that they were not able to rise;
         They fell under my feet.
  For You have girded me with strength for battle;
         You have subdued under me those who rose up against me.
  You have also made my enemies turn their backs to me,
     And I destroyed those who hated me. 
I understand the love of humanity behind saying that an eye for an eye will leave the world blind. But I am not a pacifist. I believe that evil exists and if it is within our power to do so, I believe in subduing evil.

It gets complicated. What about the evil within, what about what our government does? I believe the easy answer is to say, "It's too complicated, it's too much to try and parse, therefore, I'm just going to err on the side of loving everyone." Or we say, "It's not complicated, what we do is right, period."

Ours is not the easy way. Ours is the painful, complicated, messy way. A weakness in liberal religion is when we don't address evil, when we just explain it all away, and act as if we can just love it out of existence. I am a profound believer in the power of love. But I believe that one way we love is by standing up to evil, whether it be a multi-national corporation or a terrorist leader.

We have seen some crass examples of mob mentality in the last 24 hours, as people find their own catharsis of the last decade. But I saw one moment, right after the announcement, that spoke to me. They had begun gathering outside the White House, and were singing:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Triumphant nationalism? Maybe. But in that moment, in the dark, it seemed more a cry of relief. Our flag was still there. We still have the right to defend our country. If you attack our country, kill our people, we will respond. We are not powerless against those who would destroy us.

We will go through our period of catharsis, and then it is time to get to the real work, of examining how what we do affects the entire web of existence. How we create terrorists and dictators by seemingly small actions.
Psalm 122
or the sake of my brothers and my friends,
         I will now say, "May peace be within you."
    For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
         I will seek your good.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Spent the day at the hospital

For those who have been on the journey with us -- Little Wren had scans today.  I won't lie ... I was scared. This was the first time for her to go 6 months between scans.

No Evidence of Disease.

She also had an echocardiogram, because one of her chemos can damage the heart.

Completely normal.

Her next scans are in November. On a selfish note, I am scheduled to graduate in December. This scan, today, obviously could have changed that. But the November scans won't.

It might actually happen! I might actually grow up and be a real minister someday!

Hugs to all of you, and thank you for the prayers, white light, and kind thoughts.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spiritual Friendship

Once a month, I get in my car and drive to a religious retreat in another town that is exactly equidistant between my house and the Hysteric Cleric's. We meet to discuss spiritual things (right now, we're in the middle of Nouwen's Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith).

There are paths winding through the woods of the retreat. We have one path we usually take, but this time, we decided to go a different way. First we wound up at at a disc golf course, then we went another way and wound up blocked by a giant cobweb across the path. We didn't want to disturb Ms. Spider, so we went back to our old faithful path. Talking, talking, talking ... we looked up -- where were we? Where was the bench we usually come to?

We eventually turned around and went back. Never could figure out where we missed a turn. It's like we landed on a different path than had ever been there.

I'm sure there's a metaphor in there. 

We encourage each other, and we push each other to go deeper, to connect with our understandings of the Divine, and to ask ourselves important questions about being.

(And frankly, we give our loving spouses a break from all the "How is your soul" stuff that they tolerate, but must grow weary of.)

I have another spiritual friend, the DRE-BFF. Among other aspects of our relationship, she holds steady in her unwavering ethics and has high expectations of me. (And I, of her.)

Last year, Oprah interviewed Martha Stewart and they talked about how the woman Martha Stewart thought was her best friend testified against her.

I retold this story to the DRE-BFF. She didn't pause a second. "You commit insider trading, I'll testify against you, too!"

If you don't have a friend who holds you to the highest standards, who would testify against you if you broke the law... I'm sorry. And I hope you can find one.

The Hysteric Cleric and I were talking about being "The Beloved" this time, and I asked him when he felt beloved. I won't go into the details, but it will suffice to say that he feels deeply, profoundly loved by his spouse.

It is a tremendous gift and one I wholeheartedly relate to. People often talk about how our understandings of God come from our relationship with our parents. Yet religious texts also often speak of God in the terms of a lover. It seems only logical, to me, that romantic or eros love can give us insight into what we know of the Divine.

The Husband is a spiritual friend. He knows the depth and breadth of what I envision for my call; he cheers it on, makes my steps toward it possible. He calls me back to it when I feel a little lost.

Enlarged in his vision, I feel beloved and I feel I am The Beloved.
"...How do we know that we are not deluding ourselves...that we are not just listening to the voice of our own imagination? Who can judge their own heart? Who can determine if their feelings and insights are leading them in the right direction? ... We need someone who helps us to distinguish between the voice of God and all the other voices coming from our own confusion...We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, and to just walk away in despair. We need someone who cautions us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly toward a nebulous goal...we explore in the presence of another wise companion or two God's claim upon our lives, what has been and what may now be." -- Henri Nouwen
I am blessed with spiritual friends. I hope you are, too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Illimitable Mind

What do you get when you cross The Three Little Pigs with Forrest Church’s Cathedral of the World?

Three very different theological houses.

That first thrill of Unitarian Universalism lies in discovering your own power … having a church affirm that you have the right to discard whatever doesn’t fit your worldview and you are free to explore that vast cathedral of thought about ultimate reality. I have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a religion where “you take what you like, and leave the rest.”  This is freedom, but it is freedom without responsibility. 

It is important work that we do, systematically building an examined faith.  Because in all of our lives, the Big Bad Wolf is going to come calling. 

If you have a house of straw or even sticks – and this is something I can personally confess to – when the big bad wolf comes, your entire theological house can be swept away.  And you’re left with nothing. 

I think this is something that happened to John Lennon.  The Beatles had gone through a hateful breakup, he had numerous personal losses, he was bitter and disillusioned.  On his first solo album, he wrote the song God:

God is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible,
I don't believe in tarot,

He goes on and on, all the things he no longer believes in, both secular and spiritual.  I don’t believe in Jesus … Kennedy … Buddha … yoga … Beatles.  He sings, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.  The dream is over.”

It’s a complete stripping away of everything.

Well, some of us have to do that.  We have constructed houses of straw, taking the things that sound good, ignoring the things we’re not interested in or don’t like.  The Big Bad Wolf comes to the door and everything we believe is all blown away.  And we have to start all over again, from scratch.

But there is another way.

Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said, "An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing."

An examined faith does not just mean ignoring the things we don’t like.  An examined faith is not only characterized by what we reject, but by what we embrace, and what we put into practice. 

To go and feed the hungry is a good thing. To know and understand what is the greater meaning deep in your soul that drives you to feed the hungry or march for the rights of the immigrant will give you the strength to continue when you face setbacks and failures. And unless you’re playing it too safe, you’ll face both of those. But your theology will feed your actions and vice-versa.

Systematically engaging with the deep issues helps you form a fully-examined faith. And you’ll discover not only what you believe, but who you are.

Michael E. Duffy wrote a book called the Skeptical, Practical Christian. Frankly, I don’t recommend it for UUs, not because of the Christianity, but because the majority of the book is spent saying, “It’s okay to be skeptical!”

Already there, guy.

But his 4th chapter is good, because he lays out a process for “being able to claim a personal faith conviction on a given issue.”

You identify your issue, examine why you care about it, what you currently believe, you explore other beliefs about it, and then you discover what happens when you live it.

So, first, identify your issue.  This can be something that you’re curious about or something that is affecting you at this point in your life.

If something doesn’t immediately come to mind, try this.  When was the last time you responded emotionally to something you heard? If you catch yourself feeling defensive when someone questions something you believe, or you just find yourself instinctively rejecting an idea … this might be an opportunity. I’ve come to see those kneejerks, or intense feelings, as a big neon light lighting up a door, “GO HERE!”  If I strongly believe or reject something, going deeper, beyond my surface reaction, always leads me somewhere I needed to go.

Second step: we need to examine why we care about this issue. 
Why do we have a horse in this race?  If our identity might be wrapped up in it – why?  What it is about this issue that we need to reflect on it now? 

When you are doing a deep search for meaning, it may take you to some scary places. That means you’re doing it right. There may be things in your life that you don’t want to revisit. Things you don’t want to think about. But make no mistake – just because you don’t revisit it, doesn’t mean it’s not shaping how you view the world.  It’s kind of like having one of those malware programs running on your computer – you ever have that?  It’s a program that you don’t even see, but suddenly, your computer is running slower.  Occasionally doing weird things.  We can have shadow beliefs running in our background that are affecting us – and we don’t even realize it.

Third step: you articulate your current convictions about the issue. And forming the words to explain what we believe is crucial. We can have fuzzy concepts in our mind, but articulating them – either by writing about them or talking about them to others – helps to process and produce an explanation about what we believe. This is the raw material that you have to work with.  The scientific method parallel is to construct a working hypothesis.  You’re finding your starting point. 

Now it’s time for the real work. 4th step. Take your starting point and enter into conversation about it with ‘conversation partners.’

A conversation partner need not be another person. Conversation partners are religious texts, world religions, the theologians and philosophers, your experiences, reason, ethics. And we need to look at a combination of these.

If we limit our conversation partners to only one religious text and doctrinal writings, we’re headed toward closed fundamentalism. And limiting our conversation partners to only our own experiences and reason leads to theological narcissism. And to leave out ethics means that we will not connect our deeply held beliefs with our part in healing the world.

Let me be blunt about why conversation partners are a necessary, required part of examining our faith.  We must have the humility to understand that no human possesses absolute truth.  Including us.  For a religious fundamentalist, the tendency is to make the Bible the sole authority on truth.  God said it, I believe it, that settles it.  Not a whole lot of room for growth there.

But we are just as dangerous if we decide that our sole authority on truth is us. “This just feels right to me,” means that we are limiting wisdom to our individual experience. And it means that we have no spiritual accountability.

We have to be willing to consider other ideas and philosophies, not just those that support our starting contention on an issue.

Now along with books and writings, conversation partners can and should be other people. We joke about “what do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness?”  “Someone who knocks on your door and asks, ‘What do you believe?’” 

Well, before we knock on doors, why don’t we start with the people we know – including each other.  Rather than just asking, “So, Joe … how’s your job?”  try something more meaningful – “So, the anniversary of Sept. 11 has me thinking about the nature of evil – what do you think about it?  Do you think it’s a force or a result?” 

It’s not necessarily appropriate water cooler talk … unless it’s the water cooler at your church.  This is why we are here.  To grapple with these big questions.

Then, the last step. Application. “Discover what kind of world is created when you live out your new commitments.”

We have to test our new belief and see if it works. Will we be better persons for having this belief? Will it serve us well, or will it hold us back?

What kind of world will we help create when we live out this new faith conviction?

If you are not currently living by that belief, do you need to change that belief or your life?

We have to test our accountability. Even though these are our own personal beliefs, we have to ask, “Will believing this contribute to a life-well lived for all people?”

If everyone believed this, what would that mean for the world?

We’re not just building a theological house for our own sake.  We are building what will house our soul, so that we are spiritually empowered to engage with the world we live in.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Gathered and Sent

Gathered and Sent
A Sermon Given by Lizard Eater 
at half a dozen churches in South Texas

Okay, so there were three blind people and  … (Congregation: “An elephant.”)  Elephant?  No, no, man, that’d just be weird.  Three blind people and a Unitarian Universalist church.  They’d taken a quiz on that said they were all UUs so they wanted to see what a Unitarian Universalist church was.

The first came in and heard the choir practicing. “Oh,” he said.  “Music.  A Unitarian Universalist church is where you make music and celebrate.”

The next stumbled over a toolbox. Picking up a hammer, she said, “No, church is where we find purpose.” 

The third reached out to her so he could examine the toolbox, but as he did, he also stumbled.  She caught him and he reached up and touched her cheek.  “Ah,” he said.  “A Unitarian Universalist church is where you make community.”

They then walked down to the corner coffeeshop to continue arguing about it, because that is what we blind Unitarian Universalists do!

Of course, they were all right.  A Unitarian Universalist church is where we celebrate, find purpose, and make community.  And learn.  And connect.  And find meaning. 

But at its core, church is where we are gathered, before being sent back out.  We are a gathered and sent people.  We are gathered together to strengthen our souls … and we are sent out to strengthen the world.

When we gather together, we worship.  Worship, from the Old English weorthscipe, means to shape what is of worth.  It’s where we take time to focus on what we value.  And when we do this, when we gather together to worship, we give praise, we receive inspiration and we are fortified.

Now, praise is one of those challenging terms for Unitarian Universalists, because we’ve heard it used as a requirement – that there’s a God that created us just to praise him … for most of us, that just seems awfully human for the Divine. 

But praise is about pausing and paying attention to what we value. And celebrating it. Because it’s so easy to take things for granted.  We just get busy with our lives. When we praise, we pause.

I’m yet again trying to get on a regular exercise regimen.  I went down to my YMCA and since the weather was nice, rather than exercising inside, I went down to a path they have around a pond.  I had my mp3 player with good music and just walking along, looking at the lilypads, and the water, and the trees, I just felt so close that process of life that I call God.  And I was going along, and there’s a bench down by the water.  I didn’t stop, though, because, I had my groove on.  Next time around though, (pants) …. I'd lost my groove.  So I sat down on the bench.  And then I took out my earbuds. And I could hear birds and the sounds of the trees.  And I noticed all the details … a pillbug trotting along, a fish down in the water … here, fishy fishy fishy. I paused..  And then this great, cool, burst of honeysuckle scented air just hit me full in the face.  You can’t buy gifts like that.  You can only receive them.  I paused.  And I praised.

And when we gather together, one of the gifts we receive is inspiration.  Whether it’s in the pulpit, or the coffee hour, or during RE, or the corner forum … we get to hear the ideas of others. And that’s one of the great, precious gifts that we inherited in this liberal faith.  That we  have so many places to look to find our own answers. Our answers may be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, humanism, process theology … for many of us, they’re found in our rich theological heritage of Unitarianism and Universalism.  We read Hosea Ballou, Margaret Fuller or James Luther Adams, we take the What Moves Us classes and learn about Forrest Church and the Cathedral of the World … we find, as did one of our fine youth, an epiphany.  We gather and we are inspired. 

The Rev. Forrest Church, who gave us much inspiration, died last year.  At the first service at his church after his funeral, the Rev. Galen Guengerich told of a conversation he had had with Forrest.  See, Forrest always ended his sermons with, “Amen.  I love you.  And may God bless us all.”  He explained to his friend why he did so. 
He said,  “I think people understand what I’m trying to communicate when I say “I love you” from the pulpit.” He listed the three kinds of love that are described in the New Testament: romantic love, friendship, and divine love—agape. “People know I’m not saying “I love you” in the romantic sense,” he explained, “or even in the sense that friends would say “I love you” to each other.” He went on to say, in a typically self-deprecating observation, that he thought some people found him rather reserved in person. “But when I say, “I love you” from the pulpit,” he said, “something connects—I get connected to the congregation and they get connected to each other. It’s almost like, for a moment at least, we all part of each other—of something larger than ourselves. It’s the human form of love divine, as Blake put it.” “And besides,” he added, “someone once told me that I’m the only person in her life who ever says “I love you.” She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters.”
She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters.

Everyone turn to someone right now and say, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it!” (congregation does so)

We gather to feel that love.  We gather to remember that we matter, and that our values matter.  And we are fortified.

And so, having given praise, and received inspiration, and been fortified, our souls have been strengthened.

And so we are sent out to strengthen the world.

Unitarian Horace Mann said “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity.”  What will your victory be?

Sometimes, I think we – and by “we,” I mean, “I” … sometimes we hold ourselves back because we think that “victory” must mean something huge, dramatic, and life changing.  But something can also be small, quiet, and life changing.  Because you just can’t know what will change a life. As Mother Theresa said, “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.”   Small things with great love.  We need to gives ourselves permission to bless others, without feeling we must know that the final outcome is, or that we must be judge and jury for whether someone truly deserves our small blessing.

Often, we make simple things so complicated, either because we can see the big, final masterpiece … and don’t realize that we need to first, just start with “what is the minimum I need to do to get this up and running?” … or because we are so attached to a desired outcome that we’re afraid to begin.  We can’t see the entire path, so we’re afraid to take that first step.

I heard the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar talk about this when he was about to take the dramatic step of going to Uganda to help support those fighting the evil proposed laws against homosexuals there.  He talked about the difference between when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and when they crossed the Jordan, like in our ancient readings today.

Sometimes, that path is clear and obvious.  We’re like Moses.  The enemy is at our back, the waters have been parted, “I know what to do, I can see my path.” Now, even when our path is clearly laid out for us, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  We may feel we’re not ready.  We may feel we’re stepping into shoes five times too big.  We may look at that water to the right, water to the left, and be afraid of drowning.  But the path is laid out.  We need only to step out on it.

Sometimes, though, the path isn’t so clear, like in the book of Joshua.  We’re carrying that ark, it’s pretty heavy.  And we don’t see a path.  We have to wade in first, trusting that a path will appear.  Step out in faith. So we do.  And after we have waded in, after our ankles are wet, then the path opens.  Sometimes, we just have to wade in, and hope that the path appears.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine, he’s the pastor of a Missionary Baptist church in Sugar Land, and he said, Yeah, but what about Elisha. 

Oh man.

See with Elisha, he has just watched his mentor be swept away to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. 

What to do now?  Well, first, he needs to cross back over the Jordan River. 

And sometimes we’re like Elisha.  Our souls have been strengthened.  And we are being sent out to strengthen the world.  But there’s no path there.  And we can wade out in the middle of it, but there’s still no path that we can see.  So Elisha he picks up the robe that Elijah left behind.  He had seen him roll it up and strike the waters, so he gives it a try.  And they part.  Sometimes we have to take what we’ve learned from others, and the tools we are given, and strike the waters.  Sometimes, we have to make our own path. 

A wise man said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase.”  Anyone know you said that?  Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, a man who knew both about gathering together in church to strengthen your soul, and then being sent out to strengthen the world.

This whole gathered and sent thing … this is the core of the missional church.  What does that mean, to be a missional church?

It means that every time you leave here, every Sunday, you go out into the world and you actively live as a Unitarian Universalist, you incarnate the values of Unitarian Universalism.  It means seeing people as beings who are meant to be loved and acting accordingly.  Feeding someone who is hungry.  Being in relationship with someone who needs a friend.  And doing these things, not because your church tells you to, but because you are Unitarian Universalism.  You are the hands and feet of this religion, these values, you are the hands and feet of the divine mystery.

I'm willing to bed that there are people here who feel like when they go through those front doors and leave this church, they are going out into a foreign world, a world that does not reflect their values.  A world that says buy this and you “need” that, a world where people ridicule the weak and promote hatred  and intolerance, a crass world that values celebrity over decency, flash over substance.  And you know what?  They’re right!  We are in a culture that often does not reflect our values. 

But the answer is not to hide here, to seek sanctuary here, not even to provide sanctuary here.  We are not a cave to hide out in.  We are missionaries.  We are missionaries.  And our job is to go out into that world out there, and spread kindness.  Love. Tolerance. 

But kindness.  Love.  Tolerance.  Those things by themselves, those forces, have no hands, have no feet.  Love is the most amazing power in the world, but love cannot literally hold open a door for someone burdened.  Love has no hands and no feet.

But we do.

We have hands and we have feet and we can walk out there, walk into that world, and be missionaries for what we hold to be true.  We can be the hands and feet of love.  And we can strengthen the world.

Every time we leave our church and go out to work for justice, we are strengthening the world.  Every time we leave our church and go out to extend kindness, we are strengthening the world.  And then we are gathered back together, to talk about the work we have done, to share how we have been walking humbly with our God and to worship together. And so it becomes this wonderful cycle of strengthening our souls and strengthening the world and the wheel just gets more and more momentum.  

We can build a land where we bind up the broken, restoring ruins of generations, we can build a land of people so bold.  Gathered and Sent, we’ll build a land.

Amen, I love you.  And May God bless us all.