Monday, September 10, 2018

Crossing Borders


One of many sojourns this summer took us to visit our daughter Emma in the countryside just outside Asheville, NC. Emma and her partner Zanny are building a house, made mostly from recycled materials. What does that mean? Picture this, Francis and me hovering over old oak siding from a barn, planning it board by board to make a floor in one hundred degree heat. But we had fun didn’t we? Emma and some of her friends have bought adjoining properties at the end of a Blue Ridge Hollar, or Hollow, a road that branches off the main road and winds its way into a small valley or cove that dead ends  where the hills are the steepest. In the midst of that paradise lies a very large house, an old mansion actually, that she and others are turning into an alternative school for change agents. It’s called the Cabbage School, named after that plain and lowly vegetable that has such nutritional utility. The school now in its third year is loosely patterned after the craft schools of Appalachia, schools where adults can go to learn the basic skills of small sustainable agriculture, small building skills and such esoteric skills as wooden bucket making. In the midst of this curriculum is a commitment to advance the causes of locally based social justice. So while I was there there was a course on persevering fruit with daily meetings on how to affect sustainable agriculture in your home communities, conflict management, and the principles of anarchy. To name a few. The school has a small but loyal following, progressive millennials from Asheville to as far away as New York. So successful is this endeavor that every Sunday they hold a community potluck at the school and dozens of people show up, some of whom live on the road and many who consider this their vocational and spiritual home.

After the first year they were operating, my daughter in law Zanny who works in Asheville as a social worker for the county and encounters real poverty every day, asked why aren’t they reaching out to their North Carolina neighbors, people, who have lived on this land for generations, many of whom are dirt poor. So they did, and several of their most immediate neighbors including two brothers who live directly across from the school started to come to the potlucks. Reluctantly at first, these brave folks entered into the hub bub of scores of millennials, few of whom are from NC who spoke of such things as “disruption” and “gender politics”. You can imagine how foreign these two worlds seemed to each other. But then something remarkable started to happen, the young people asked their neighbors to help them build a sauna. Jeff and Roger two brothers who lived right across from the school in a trailer were more than willing even if that weren’t sure what a sauna actually is.

And so one summer day, Jeff and Roger, two North Carolinians and six 30 something folks from the school went about building the wood fired sauna. Turns out the brothers knew a thing or two about building with recycled material and after several days they produced a marvelous little sauna house. When I sat down next to Jeff at the potluck, now two years later, I asked him what he thought of all these kids. He smiled his toothless grin and said “We wasn’t so sure about these kids, seemed like hippies to us. But they are real neighbors, they have been there for us more than a few times.”
As I drove back home through the blue ridge to the East Coast, I thought long about this remarkable community these most unlikely neighbors have made for one another. In an age, where my daughter and her friends voted for Bernie, if they voted at all, and Jeff and Roger voted for Trump, here was an example of the best of what we could be as Americans. A vast gulf between generations, political identities, gender politics and wealth had been bridged. And I thought, why can’t we do that everywhere?

With Grace and Grit, John

Monday, September 3, 2018

Finding Meaning in the Midst of All This Mess

After John McCain's Memorial Service you would have thought the entire Washington Elite Establishment was against the rancor and divisiveness of our current president. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As David Leonard pointed out in the NY Times today.

How then do we both stand against the outrage of our time and care for the well being of so many of our friends and family? How do we remain grounded in our faith as good and decent human beings and resist the assault on our civic virtues?

For me, the answer lies in both resisting when we can and staying optimistic about the ultimate outcome of our lives and our republic. First, to the resistance. Remember: We are not alone. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, far more than half this country is committed to resisting the resurgence of White Nationalism in the midst of this long cold civil war. The question is always how shall we resist? And here, the answer is surprisingly simple: Pay attention to what is already being done. While the "Resistance Movement" is diffuse it is not silent. Find a group meeting. Go, join, help out. At a recent training at our church, over a hundred people from the wider community came to learn how to support, physically support, undocumented refugees and immigrants.

What about the second need to remain grounded in our faith as decent human beings? Here again, there is no substitute for physically being around people and institutions that offer that grounding and uplifting message. This coming Sunday I plan to offer a decidedly optimistic vision of our future as a community. While it might seem far fetched now, I really do believe that we will care for each other, find strength in our faith and hope for the future. www.uuwestport.org

Perhaps now more than ever we need to bring forth a brighter vision to lay our eyes upon. The world is not ending. We will overcome even this demagoguery. And a new world is ours to grasp.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, June 16, 2018

For Father's Day


The campaign to celebrate the nation’s fathers did not meet with enthusiasm--perhaps because, as one florist explained, “fathers haven’t the same sentimental appeal that mothers have.” On July 5, 1908, a West Virginia church sponsored the nation’s first event explicitly in honor of fathers, a Sunday sermon in memory of the 362 men who had died in the previous December’s explosions at the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah. The next year, a Spokane, Washington, one of six children raised by a widower, tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for male parents. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and she was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

During the 1920s and 1930s, a movement arose to scrap Mother’s Day and Father’s Day altogether in favor of a single holiday, Parents’ Day. Paradoxically, however, the Depression derailed this effort to combine and de-commercialize the holidays. Struggling retailers and advertisers redoubled their efforts to make Father’s Day a “second Christmas” for men, promoting goods such as neckties, hats, socks, pipes and tobacco, golf clubs and other sporting goods, and greeting cards. When World War II began, advertisers began to argue that celebrating Father’s Day was a way to honor American troops and support the war effort.

In 1972, in the middle of a hard-fought presidential re-election campaign, Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a federal holiday at last.  Today, economists estimate that Americans spend more than $1 billion each year on Father’s Day gifts.
However, many men, including my father, continued to disdain the day. They “scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products--often paid for by the father himself.” (see HistoryChanel.com)

My father, Ward Ely Morehouse, died on June 30th, 2012, six years ago.  I was not there when he died.  He was swimming in his favorite New England pond when he suffered a massive heart attack.  The paramedics revived his heart but he was in a coma and died twelve hours later.  I have shared with you before that I was in Yellowstone NP the day he died, and, at the precise moment he was having his heart attack I told Frances to pull over the car so I could jump bidden by some  unseen force into the glacier lake.  Only latter would I learn that the urge to jump into the water happened at the moment he was leaving this earth.

My father was a noble and complex man.  Like so many of his generation he was emotionally distant, which is not to say that he didn’t feel, he did, deeply and often with tears.  He just didn’t express those feelings often, preferring a stoic response to life.  And for good reason, a child of the Great Depression, his father was often absent as a wayward Academic and his mother, my grandmother, who suffered from debilitating depression, was often institutionalized.  My father learned early on that emotions were best kept to oneself.  I am not like my father in that regard.  I express myself openly – sometimes a little too openly from time to time.  I have also been tempered by living with six daughters and my beloved spouse.  Secrets are not part of our family system.

But despite his distance, he gave me the wisdom of virtues, seen and unseen.  Honesty, optimism, loyalty, hard work, vision and flexibility.  In honor of my father and all fathers, those biological and those who have held the role, embrace the best lessons you learned and pass them on.

With Grace and Grit, John

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hope In A Time of Addiction



My mother died young, quite suddenly, at the age of 73. My father who loved her very much was quite lost. He had come to live near our home in Maryland, a ramshackle little house that we were all in the midst of renovating.  I would check on me from time to time to see how he was. I noticed he was looking gaunt and was losing weight. Then one day I came to the house and I found him barely conscious on the couch. I got him up and drove him to hospital. The ER did a blood test and admitted him immediately, his white blood cell count was rising and he was anemic. The doctors spent the next several hours trying to figure out what was wrong. The primary doctor, a good friend and a member of our congregation, pulled me aside to tell me that he was very sick and that he might not make it.  I knew this phenomenon especially among men, that when their spouse died, grief and a lack of self-care often led the surviving spouse to follow in death within months. Now I knew how scary and painful that could be. Then the doctor asked me “Are you sure your father doesn’t drink?” “What?!” I replied, “Who told you that?” “He did” she replied. “Are you kidding me?” I said “He drinks like a fish”. In fact, both my father and mother were what we would now call functional alcoholics, downing three or four double scotches each night before a gigantic meal with wine at 10 pm.  “Well that explains it” she said, “He is dying of alcohol poisoning”. It turned that my father, in his grief, was drinking close to a quart of scotch a day and living on wonder bread and grape jelly sandwiches, that coupled with flu was bringing him to death’s door.

 After the doctor went back in to see him and to order new procedures to reverse the effect, I followed. It was one of the most difficult and powerful conversations of my life, not as his minister but as his son. “Dad” I said “I know you are heartbroken after losing mom. We are all carrying around these broken hearts. But you have choice here Dad: you can choose to leave your body and be with her again, or you can keep on living. You can keep on living for me and my brother, for your daughter in laws and your beautiful granddaughters. You can keep living for walks in the woods with the dogs, for the warmth of the sun on your face, you can keep on living to do the work of justice, to write, to agitate, and to laugh. It will hurt for a while dad, but the pain will subside and, while there will always be a hole in your heart where mom lived, your grief, our grief, will bring a depth and richness to life such as you have never known. I know this is true dad, because I have seen it happen over and over again. You can choose but you have to stop drinking and start living. I want you to choose life.”

There was a foreboding silence as he contemplated what I said, and the shame he now felt at being found out as an addict and as a proud man. He said “OK. But I never want to see that doctor again.”  “That’s fine Dad, that’s fine. I will find you another doctor.”


I tell you this story, because I know that almost everyone in this room has been touched by addiction.  As Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace wrote, “We all suffer from addictions: addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods like depression, shyness, cynicism, people can become addicted to an illness, success, control and fantasies.” (From Addiction and Grace) And any number of substances and behaviors that mask the pain and stress of living: food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, the list is long. So I believe that all of us have addictive natures, by virtue of having to both cope with life and to the power of substance and behavior to mask the pain. All of us are addicted, yet some become more so, for reasons that have as much to do with chemistry in our brains as behaviors in our life.  Addictions become a problem when they interfere with our lives which leads to a ruin of life and it is then we need the most help. 

Hope in a Time of Addiction, not only because of the opioid crisis, but for the addiction to media that made this election possible, the tweets, the 24 hour news cycle, fake news, and our addiction to it. We try to convince ourselves that this craziness is not normal but what if this addiction to it is normal. Yes, our addiction to it: How many of you have MSNBC on almost all the time? Waiting for the next and latest outrage and our primarily liberal response to it. How many of you beloveds, think Rachel Maddow is a saint? 

 

Gerald May writes that ‘Spiritual, addiction is a deep seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It contravenes the first commandment, you shall have no other gods before me, the god of love….it is in effect a counterfeit spiritual presence. As it is written in Ecclesiastes “I denied my eyes nothing that they desired, refused my heart no pleasure…What futility it all was, what chasing after the wind.” The Grace of one another is our hope, the only power that can vanquish addiction’s destructive power.’ (Adapted May)

 My father recovered from his illness and stopped drinking cold turkey. He never attended a 12 step program. And he went on to live a rich and full life. He married again, he wrote, he protested, he laughed, he danced. And he had one glass of wine on his 80th birthday.

With Grace and Grit, John

 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Observing Abundance



Why is it that when we are at the end of our life we regret what we didn’t do?  Couldn’t we try instead to appreciate what we did do. Abundance and gratitude are sisters. One is possible through the other. Studies have been done on happiness and aging. Apparently we, as a population, are happiest in our sixties and seventies.  Why?   Time changes as we age. We all know that time is slower when we are young and faster as we age, which is likely due to the fact that we have so many more memories to compare time to. So while we have more time when we are younger it’s full of anxiety. As we grow older we can let go of the worry about the future, in part because there is less of it to worry about.  Our time is less but more abundant in quality. When people are asked about meeting new people when they are young the answer is often “sure, why not?” because there is plenty of time to try that out. But as we age we don’t really have time for that. We want to develop and cherish the relationships we have. These are the deeper wells of our humanity from which we draw our living water.

Once we realize that all of us – all of us – are blessed with this divine abundance, this essential wholeness, than the sooner we can get on with the task of living lives that are integrated with our hopes and aspirations. Let me give you an example. I used to be a real penny pincher. I could make the Indian ride the back of the Buffalo. I would never give money to a panhandler. Until I met a messenger.  A panhandler I passed on the street who when I ignored him and walked on by said to me, ‘bless you anyway sir’. I turned around and saw a young man, a man my age at the time, and something went click; a moment of grace. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I realized our essential interconnection and I reached into my pocket and gave him all the money I had. Becoming whole will cost you. And it might just help you observe the abundance of love that resides in your own heart. 

With Grace and Grit, John