Thursday, February 6, 2020

Grace Happens




Grace is a funny word. Christianity views grace as an unbidden gift from God. For me grace is any time we are given insight, meaning and purpose to our lives. Grace lives in the everyday of our experiences. Grace happens when we least expect it.
Several days ago Francis and I were dealing with the town tax office. For some reason we were still being charged vehicle property tax on a car that had never even been garaged in that town. As was my wont with bureaucrats I came loaded for a confrontation. We had all our paperwork in order including a paid receipt from our current town showing we paid the tax. Francis, who is often kinder than me, began by asking the town employee’s name, and then introduced us. She then explained the situation. The tax lady was more than kind. She explained how the system worked and how we could fix it. She and Francis then got into a conversation about how difficult her job is and how most people come in filled with righteous anger instead of understanding how the tax system worked.

By the end of the encounter, we departed as civilians, in the best sense of the word, cognizant of each other’s humanity in the midst of forces often beyond our control. We had all experienced the grace of civility and kindness. May we look often for these moments and see them all around us. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, January 24, 2020

Facing Grace


Grace Happens

Grace is a funny word. Christianity views grace as an unbidden gift from God. For me grace is any time we are given insight, meaning and purpose to our lives. Grace lives in the everyday of our experiences. Grace happens when we least expect it.

Several days ago Francis and I were dealing with the town tax office. For some reason we were still being charged vehicle property tax on a car that had never even been garaged in that town. As was my wont with bureaucrats I came loaded for a confrontation. We had all our paperwork in order including a paid receipt from our current town showing we paid the tax. Francis, who is often kinder than me, began by asking the town employee’s name, and then introduced us. She then explained the situation. The tax lady was more than kind. She explained how the system worked and how we could fix it. She and Francis then got into a conversation about how difficult her job is and how most people come in filled with righteous anger instead of understanding how the tax system worked.

By the end of the encounter, we departed as civilians, in the best sense of the word, cognizant of each other’s humanity in the midst of forces often beyond our control. We had all experienced the grace of civility and kindness. May we look often for these moments and see them all around us. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Poem by Toko-Pa Turner

I read this poem in church the other day and it spoke to many:

I Want to be Alive with You
by Toko-Pa Turner
 
I want to be guided by older-ups. 
I want babies to be born where old people die. 
I want to be sandwiched in the middle of a messy togetherness.
I want to be warned before I do something stupid. 
I want to be forgiven when I do it anyway. 
I want wisdom to be tapped out on my eardrums and not Googled. 
I want transitions to be recognized by fire.
I want gifts to be educed from children. 
And teenagers and adults and I want to mean something to my community. 
I want to get drunk on substance morning and night.
I want to hear your dreams. 
I want to raise a revolution for gentleness. 
I want to call out the bullshit on consensus reality. 
I want to get rich so I can billboard the highways with validations.
I don't want to be another faker. 
I don't want to show you my good side and hide my humanity.  
I don't want to dole you out my Self in digestible status-chunks. 
I want to challenge you in long, drawn-out rituals and still find you interested.
I want to feed you seventeen course meals made with spices I crushed.  
I want to recite you circular poems, each beginning cutting a deeper grasp. 
I want to make you feel something, even if it's awkward. 
I want to sing you songs which are ancient and new.
I want to carve stories in trees with tools my elders fashioned. 
I want to keep sharpening them. 
I want to find places we've never been. 
And then, I want to return there, but backwards.
I want to shuffle up words so we don't sleep through them. 
I want to learn things and then be splashed into never forgetting. 
I want to make you feel seen. 
I want to hold your pounding heart in my gentlest of hands. 
I want to make your thing feel like my thing.
I don't want to miss a moment. 
I want to dig at the bottom and find it false. 
I want to turn up unknown depths. 
I want to stand in this hurricane and sing the sweetest, 
most naked song you can bear.
I want to be alive with you.
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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Language of Reverance


As progressive people we often shy away from words that either reminds us of a religious past we would just as well like to forget or because the meanings of these words might be committing us to a belief system we don’t fully endorse. Words like God, holiness, faith, grace, prayer, salvation, atonement, sacrifice, theology and the real stumbling block, sin. It is true that many religious traditions use these words in ways that many of us disagree with theologically; prayer is often associated with a supplication to a higher power, sacrifice reminds us of the Christian faith in salvation through Jesus  and grace in its the Christian meaning is an unbidden gift from God. But I contend that we do ourselves a disservice to avoid this rich language.  The language of reverence is ours to use as well in ways that better fit our own understandings of the universe. Indeed, each of these words is used richly throughout literature from the Bible to Walt Whitman.

I am very careful in how I use these words with you. Many have noticed, for instance, that I rarely use the word God in my preaching. Mostly, I do this to avoid confusion, realizing full well that there are at least as many understandings of God as there are people in the room, but also because I am not sure what that God entails. My own definition is rooted in nature and human relationships. To unpack all of that as I am trying to convey a deeper message seems more trouble than it is worth. This doesn’t mean the word has no value, only that its value is greater than the words I have to express it.
Grace is a word I use often. My blog is titled “Facing Grace”. By grace I mean those opportunities and gifts we are presented with that help us to change our outlook on the world and make us better people. I don’t require a God to believe in grace, just the possibility that what comes our way may have more meaning than we might normally give it. I have met people, for instance, that give me insight in some unique way to a problem I am facing. I need a direction, and a direction appears. As the Jedi master once said “A solution will present itself”. That is grace.

Faith is another such word. I realize that some of us are more than a little uncomfortable with faith. It suggests “blind faith”, a complete surrender to something we are required to believe in. That is not how I use this word. For me, faith is that assurance that what we hold to be good and right and true is, in almost every instance, good and right and true. I have faith in the general goodwill of people to care for one another. I have faith that science and modern medicine will continually improve our lives. I have faith in democracy. Having faith doesn’t mean we have to stop being concerned or stop working towards these ends. Now, more than ever, we need to work towards preserving our democracy. What it does mean is that I have an assurance that there is a high probability that what I have faith in will in fact prevail.

Yours in Grace and Grit, John

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