Friday, March 3, 2017

Be Who You Are



Many of us have had what is called a sophomoric crisis, me included. What is a sophomoric crisis you ask? As the Latin hints at it is when we think we know more than we do and begin to question our very identity. It happened to me in either my sophomore year of high school or college, I can’t remember which, when I wondered who was I really? Was I this middle class nerd who liked the Grateful Dead? Or was I whatever my friends were? If they were tough guys, then I was a tough guy, if they pretended to be erudite and smart, I pretended to be erudite and smart. I felt like a chameleon, always changing my colors to suit those around me. It was a real crisis. And then there was my worry that I didn’t think I mattered at all. I decided to try a little experiment: I would not go out of my way to reach any of my friends, stay in my room as much as possible and see if anyone noticed or reached out to me. A full week went by and nobody called. I was heartbroken: Nobody loves me, nobody cares, guess I will just eat peaches and pears.  Anyone here ever tried that?

This was long before Facebook. But now I see this on FB every once and a while. Someone will post. “Just checking to see if anyone will miss me. Click like if you are still out there.” And then they are devastated that nobody notices.  Why would we do that to ourselves? It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

“Be who you are” was one of Forrest Church’s great temperate instructions, want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.  Even when it pushes against sanity.  Nytimes article about Milt Greek, a schizophrenic living in Ohio who has been trying to channel his higher delusions into a positive center.  He tries to ignore the voices of destruction.  But he does listen to the voices that implore him to make a better world.  Being who we are means embracing our given talents.

Thanksgiving 1993.  A soup kitchen on Calfax in South Bend, IN. The food was warm and there was plenty of it.  Half way through the meal the door flew open and these two drunks came in pushing people this way and that, shouting for something to eat.  My first reaction was to call the police but I didn’t.  Being the only male volunteer in the room, I yelled at them to keep it down and stop pushing. When the first got to the front of line he wanted to know what we were serving, although those weren’t his exact words.  I told him and as he took the plate he sniffed it and flung it back at me.  I ducked and the plate missed me, but the food went everywhere.  I let loose a tirade that turned more than a few heads since they all knew I was a minister and called the staff upstairs who came down and had the two men escorted out.  As I cleaned up from the encounter I thought to myself “How ungrateful can you be”?  Here he had come for free food, warmth and he had thrown it back in my face.  I questioned whether I really did have the guts to be a part of the solution.  Not answered easily.  As I thought about that incident, I began to realize that my reaction was in part the result of who I was, a white, middle class man, just as his ungratefulness was a result of his being.  How many of us, having lived a life full of violence, hunger and rejection would have been grateful for a plate of stale food?  I was looking from the top down in life and he was looking from the bottom up; expecting him to be grateful was a condition of who I was and not a condition of his life.
           
Truly living up to who we are sets the stage for us to make our lives and the world a better place.  Learning who you are can take a lifetime.  For some of us, it is very painful. Girls that are born into boy’s bodies and boys born into girls bodies. Transgender people are ridiculed, taunted, and are ten times more likely to be murdered than any other identity group in the world.

My identity in life comes from knowing misfortune to be occasional not constant; while for the drunk his identity is marked by an anger that is the only response to a life of constant hardship.  Not that he should have thrown the food at me, but who he was and what he had to deal with played a large part in what he did.  To effectively undo a wrong we have to look seriously at who we are.  We cannot do everything we think we can, no matter how much we want to.  But we won’t know until we try; whether it is starting again or healing some ancient hurt.  We are who we are, because we did everything we could, and when we could do no more we rest secure in being who we are.

Who among us doesn’t carry a loss?  Who among us was unable to do what we thought we could?    But don’t you see?  If you tried, you still were caring enough to be worthy.  Because there is merit in trying.  There is redemption in every attempt we have to be who we would dream we are.  Sometimes we will fail but we try and are saved.  And that is thanks enough.  And that is love.
           
Traditionally, religions have been about the task of providing a set of beliefs upon which a person takes action.  That is the meaning of ethics; the doing of a moral understanding.  But, as Dr. King understood, we have to sometimes stand against what our religion tells us to do.  Reformations continue to evolve religious understanding even today.  I sense one such reformation happening even in evangelical Christianity, not especially known for embracing the troubles of this world.  Increasingly, conservative Christians are uniting with other groups to affect positive change in our society.  No not on the so-called core values of  marriage and abortion, but in terms of global warming, the causes of poverty and war.

When Dr. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he answered the charge by white and liberal colleagues that he was being too radical.  He decried the suggestion that the status quo was good enough when the Kingdom of God on earth required a challenge to that status quo.  King asked “was not Jesus an extremist for love; ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that you’?  Was not Amos an extremist for justice when he said ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’?  …..was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist when he wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.’”….the  question is we willing to do what it takes to live out what we believe?  Our identity as privileged folks weighs on those who have so little privilege.

Eventually, I moved beyond worrying about whether or not I mirrored other people. We all do to a certain extent. It’s our evolutionary imprinting, but more importantly who I am is a result of what I do. Not in a job, but in how we treat others, the kindness we express to strangers. The hope we have in life, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As James Baldwin who became one of the greatest African American writers of all time put it:   “An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience."  Here then is our work, to thy own self be true, and to that truth we devote our best and most noble self.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reclaiming Prophecy in Troubled Times



I had the honor of moderating a conversation between the Norwalk Policy Chief and representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement at a breakfast held on MLK Day. The event was full of speeches and prayers and singing. In introducing me to the audience the Rev. Dr. Jeffery Ingraham the pastor of a large Baptist Church in Norwalk, lauded my handling of a contentious public hearing on white privilege but said in researching our denomination found that we could not be farther apart theologically. He cited a billboard from one of our churches that read “More Curious Than Certain”. He was certain Jesus died for our sins, we, he implied, considered that Jesus was a matter for further consideration.

As we worked together, of course, we could put aside those differences for the common cause we made to remember and learn from the prophecy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I reminded him later that King’s oft used line “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” was in fact, first penned by our own Rev. Theodore Parker, a staunch abolitionist and Unitarian minister. The point I hope to make was that in the words of Dr. King, “we may have come on different ships but we are all in the same boat now.”

In other words, we need to see the deep seated call for all people of faith to reclaim the prophecy of Dr. King and so many others for what it can teach us about how to live in this broken world. Prophecy is an often misunderstood as some kind of fortune telling, confusing its truth telling for a foretelling, like a tip on which horse to bet on.

A Medieval prophet prophesied to a king that his favorite mistress would soon die. Sure enough, the woman died a short time later. The king was outraged at the prophet, certain that his prophecy had brought about the woman's death. Word spread through the kingdom and soon got back to the prophet. The King summoned the prophet and commanded him: "Prophet, tell me when you will die! “The prophet realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately, no matter what answer he gave. The prophet thought for a moment and said: "I only know that whenever I die, the king will die three days later." source: http://www.jokebuddha.com/Prophecy#ixzz4WJoRW1nn

We are all in lamentation, even amidst our abundance. Life itself is finite, the world has struggle and now, especially we may feel lost and not yet found. The ancient Hebrew  prophet Amos speaks a timeless truth when he says of those in power:
“Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. Let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness and mercy like an ever flowing stream..” (Amos 5:24)

The lamentations we may be feeling will lessen (but like grief never fully close) when and if we dedicate our lives to something larger than ourselves. This is the prophetic tradition we own. We need hope here, I agree, and we need reliance to reclaim the prophetic tradition that is ours stretching back to Amos, through Jesus, through the loving ministry of Clara Barton, through the Waitsail and Martha Sharpe through Dr. King and onto such luminaries in our times such as Christopher Reeves, Maya Angelou and Mary Wright Edelman, through the lights of those still to come, Corey Booker, Nina Turner and the young Unitarian Universalist minster in Bismarck at Standing Rock, Rev. Karen Van Fossan.

We have a deep and hope filled pool of prophecy that is ours to claim. And I am proud that hundreds of thousands of women and men, girls and boys marched for justice after the inauguration. We will need to march again and again.

As I thought about this passage from Amos, I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states; a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel and Judah with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. That making Israel great again rings hollow.  Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is only offering God really wants from his people. Our journey is only beginning but I take courage that it is the way of tyrants to fall. It always has been.

With Grace and Grit, John

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Towards Our Promised Lane




I start with the Hebrew story of Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Jacob stole the blessing of his father from his older brother Esau. He did this by dressing up in goat skins and convincing his father who was blind, to turn the inheritance over to Esau who was hairy, right away. Isaac, convinced that Jacob was Esau, handed over the inheritance to Jacob.  With his brother’s inheritance in hand, Jacob fled his father and his older brother and found himself with his uncle Laban who promised him his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of hard labor and most of the inheritance he had just stolen from his older brother. 

Seven years turns into fourteen and so when God told Jacob it was time to return home, he was more than ready. His father was long dead and Jacob longed to return to his homeland, to his own promised land. Jacob left with his wives, servants and children and headed back to the Promised Land, quite anxious about how he would be received by his older brother after cheating him so many years ago.  They family arrived at the bank of a river and Jacob sent the party across not entirely sure he could yet come out to face his brother.  Exhausted from the journey he put his head down and prepared to sleep.  As he slept, an angel came upon him and began to wrestle with the wily Jacob.  They were evenly matched and as dawn came upon them, Jacob asked the strangers name, to which no reply was given, instead Jacob was wounded in the thigh bone, an ancient symbol of intimacy.  Jacob held the stranger and demanded that before he let him go he bless Jacob  and the angel said, “your name has been Jacob (which means to grasp) but from now on your name will be ‘Israel’, for you have striven with God and prevailed” .

Jacob was a changed man.  Until then he had been a passive player in the drama of his destiny, the mama’s boy, the trickster, worried about his older brother, ignored by his father, tricked by his father-in-law, trapped in a darkness of soul in which his life held little purpose.    (See Naomi Rosenblat’s Wrestling with Angels; Doubleday, 1995 for an excellent discussion of this motif)

Yet, somehow, through his own self – reliance he was able to come out of his old hidden self and accept his wounds (symbolized by his thigh injury) and transcend to the higher place of his true and better nature.

Just where was Jacob’s promised land? Was it in the land he was migrating to? The land he once called home? Or was it to reconcile with his brother, Esau from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance? In a very outward and literal sense, Jacob was returning to his home land, an actual place that felt had been promised to him by God. But if we look further into the story, we can see that he was also traveling to the promised land of reconciliation and brotherly love that he longed for with his brother. But neither of those “promised lands” were possible until Jacob completed his most important and inward journey and that was the promised land of his own integrity.

Wrestling with the angels is a powerful metaphor in mythology. It refers not so much to a celestial force or even something outside of who we are, but a wrestling with our inner doubts, our faults and even our guilt. By prevailing through the night, Jacob was given a new name, and with that name a renewed identity to become the good man he was promised by God to become; no longer the trickster and liar, but instead a human being cognizant of his faults and willing to atone for them by returning to his brother and asking for his forgiveness. The wound he suffered from the wrestling with the angel was not so much a physical one as it was spiritual and emotional. The physical dislocation of his hip was just a reminder of the spiritual dislocation of his conceit in favor of a life with the promise of integrity.

Where is the promised land? Beloveds, the promise land starts in us, right in here, right with our own doubts, and our own judgements, our own fears and our own prejudices. Every great world leaders has wrestled with the angels; Mother Theresa, Muhammed and his encounter with Gabriel, the Buddha and the temptation of Mira the God of death, Jesus and the devil promising him worldly power and eternal life. Each prophet, just like each of us has to wrestle for our better selves. That is the true and most lasting promised land.

Before I entered the ministry I thought seriously about become a lawyer. A prosecuting attorney at that. I saw myself putting bad people away. I was angry and afraid of the world. I went so far as to begin the application process. I wrestled with this decision for weeks on end, until finally, with a little help from my beloved, I saw that temptation for what is was; a place to put my fear of being poor and my fear of others into a destructive role. I am not saying that being a prosecuting attorney is wrong. Just that it was wrong for me. I was going into it for the wrong reasons. It was a long a slow journey back to my true promised land, my decision to enter the ministry and I have been grateful ever since.

We all have struggles we must overcome in order to enter the promised land of a better life. Throughout this month I will be exploring how we can overcome those struggles and become prophets in our own world. For prophecy does not entail a telling of the future as much as it entails a telling of our truth. For someone like MLK who had plenty of struggles to overcome, the promised land he dreamed of was not just of his people but of himself. He was well aware of his shortcomings, his anger, his infidelity, his impatience, but he was also aware of how important it was to not let those shortcoming stall his work. Taylor Branch in his last and most sentient book (At Canaan’s Edge) of King and the Civil Rights movement spoke realistically of just how much of a struggle it was for the prophet that he was to overcome his failings. He did struggle with affairs and his marriage, but he fought against those failings and was prepared to move forward with his larger mission to fight against war and poverty itself.

How do we prevail? How do we overcome our shortcomings and move towards our own promised land? We can work for justice. We can march for rights. We can hope for a world beyond the one we see here. But we will need to do the inner work as well. This is what I have learned from Dr. King. We have to wrestle with our own angels before we can truly complete our journey to the promised land we dream of.

One of the most profound lessons I have learned over the years has been to engage my emotions in my journey. Getting out of my head and into my heart has been, and will continue to be, a lifelong journey. Daniel Gorman speaks of emotional intelligence. I think this is vital to the journey. We need to  understand what makes us tick. To become aware of our fears and our anger and not misplace it onto those who do not deserve it. Owning our deeper selves is not easy, but the good news is we don’t have to do it alone. We have others who can share with you this journey. Engage your angels and find that centering truth that will take you to the promised land.  We will have opportunities to fight injustice in the months ahead. What we need first is the courage to deal with our own fears. This is where I think we need to begin. In our own hearts first.

I have found that emotional honesty is a great means by which to do this; to be less politically correct and more what the journalist Sally Kohn calls being emotionally correct (http://www.ted.com/talks/sally_kohn_let_s_try_emotional_correctness). To not demonize those who are not like us and to try instead to understand where they come from, what their fears are. If we could start there in this polarized country, we might find our journey to the promised land to be much less daunting. I have tried this myself in talking to several people who are the political opposites of me. When I ask them why they voted the way they did, I often hear of their own fears. And I then I can stop demonizing them and understanding that while we may disagree we are both worried about our families, our country and our future. This should be where our justice work begins.

When Jacob crossed over into his homeland and sent word to his brother Esau that he was coming he was full of trepidation. What would his brother do? What he still be filled with anger at having his inheritance stolen? Would he attempt to harm Jacob? Or would Esau welcome him home? As Jacob approached his brother’s camp he could see Esau and a large retinue approaching quickly. Jacob worried that they were mounting an attack.  But as Esau drew closer Jacob could see that his brother was running towards him with open arms. As they embraced Jacob realized that his worst fears were relieved. His brother had moved beyond the struggles of their past and was overjoyed to welcome his brother Jacob home. Home to their promised land. May our journey this year also bring us closer to home, starting with our own hearts as we open them to the promise of transcending love. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Stories for the New Year





Here is the story most of us remember,  once upon a time there was a nomadic family, Abraham and Sarah wandering the desert in search of God’s promised land.  Sarah was barren and in order to give her husband a son she told him to lie with her handmaiden, Hagar, a Bedouin slave.  Hagar bore Abraham a son who she named Ishmael.  In time, Sarah grew jealous of Hagar and had Abraham banish her and her young son to the desert to die.  Hagar and Ishmael did not die but were saved by God and went off to found the tribes of Arabia, the ancestors of Islam.  Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac who inherited his father’s blessing and became the father of the Israelites.
           
This story, a compilation of Jewish and Muslim traditions, is in large part the histo-cultural reason for the millennia old conflict between Arabs and Israelis.  Any one who tells you that “it’s just a story” is not appreciating the power the stories have to tell.  What if this story had a different outcome?  What if Sarah had not had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the desert?  What if they had lived, as was the nomadic custom of the day, together in a multi female household and Ishmael and Isaac had grown up as brothers?  Would the outcome be any different?  I believe it would.
           
Stories do more than just entertain.  Stories speak to our values, in fact, the oldest stories inform our values.  Any of the German fairy tales inform much of our American work ethic: the boy who cried wolf, teaches us not to lie; the Jewish story about the Three Little Pigs informs our work ethic; the tale of the frog prince, teaches us the virtue of seeing the inner self.  Stories are a means to meaning, or as the author Roy Hedin puts it:
“Stories are the central means by which we demonstrate our desire for a meaningful life. It is through stories that we convey our central wishes, fears, and values. It is through stories—and through the sense of our lives as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end—that we create a sense of purpose and direction. It is through the stories we tell and the stories that engage our interest that we reveal—and discover—where we are coming from and where we are going. It is through telling our stories and listening to the stories of others that we connect with them on the deepest level. And it is through the reshaping of our stories that we reshape our sense of purpose and direction in times of uncertainty, stress, and tragedy”.  (From Roy Hedin www.meaningthroughstories.com)
           
No minister could convey to you the deeper questions and answers to life without the use of the many stories we use.  Stories are more than just a tool to giving meaning they are a system by which meaning is conveyed most effectively.  This is why stories are such a necessary part of our worship celebration.  You will forget all the niceties of any well crafted theological argument, I can assure you, but if I start and end with a story, you will remember that.  In fact, better yet, you will retell the story and there lies the real power.

Story telling is more than a recreation it is, in short, the “art of meaning”.  Theology, the system of making meaning is simply not possible without stories.
           
Occasionally, I am asked if a story “really happened”.  I smile that wily smile and reply “if it’s not true it should be”.  Such an answer is akin to the best definition of a myth I ever heard from an eight year old: myths are something that are false on the outside but true on the inside.  Whether the story is true or not is not the point.  The story is the point.  This is a church, not a court of law, our search for truth and meaning, is not a Joe Friday “just the facts ma’m” endeavor; it’s a meaning making endeavor.  Most of the stories I tell you are true in the factual sense, all the stories I tell you are true in the mythic sense.
           
Myths are the cultural stories we tell to remind us of our deepest values and meanings.  And we are so starved for myths these days.  So unable to feel and experience the heroic in our lives.  How can we go beyond the facts and the spin to the really important stories of our lives?  We can remember and retell the old stories first.  The bible, for instance, is a treasure trove of stories, as useful as any.  Full of tragedy, wrong, right, justice, love, hate, pathos.  These and much more recent myths begin to reanimate our lives with a different sense of meaning.
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Stories help us make sense of life.  This is why we do well to learn how to tell those stories.  Better story tellers make better story hearers. More importantly, start this new year with the most important story of your life: yours.  Your story is the stuff of legend already.  You have as many adventures as any preacher, more so.  I make to you today an invitation:  write down some of those great stories from your own life and send them to me.  I would love to read them.  Let me know if I have your permission to use them in a sermon with or without your name.  Share them with those who know you.  William Ellery Channing put it so well:  Let your life preach better than words.