Thursday, December 16, 2010

Miracle off Fifth Avenue

When my first business failed in 1983, I felt exiled and alone. I was a thousand miles from anywhere I would want to call home and Christmas was coming. I watched slowly, painfully as the auctioneer sold my hard work and dreams away, knowing full well that whatever I had left would go to the banker and still leave me bankrupt. Three months before this moment of darkness, my divorce was final and my life was on a downward spiral. My best friend at the time was a bartender, and nothing seemed right in the world. Iowa is cold in December, that year it was colder than ever.

I spent the next year, waiting for a second chance. But nothing, not the alcohol, not the drugs, not the new job and not even a new relationship made anything about that dull pain O.K. I was alone off Fifth Avenue in New York City walking back from a party I didn't even want to be at, when I witnessed a miracle.  I watched from across the street as a man, a rather wealthy man, walked quite briskly past a homeless man lying over a steaming grate. He took two steps past the man, stopped, turned around, and knelled by his side. The well-dressed gentleman took off his camel hair overcoat and draped it over the sojourners shoulders. This was an expensive coat mind you, easily costing over a $1000 and then he patted the old man gently reaching into his pocket and handing him a wad of money. No words were said. The well-dressed man got up and walked away, ever more briskly than before as if he was trying to make up for lost time.

I knew in that moment that there would never be enough reasons to feel good enough about my life if I kept blaming the world for my troubles.  At that moment I had a revelation, an epiphany, the first light of my own salvation from none other than my own sorry self. I was living in material abundance but my soul was wanting a reason to live. I realized in that moment that there were angels all around me, in that rich man, who was as much a part of the problem as his overcoat solution, they were around the old man lying in the street keeping him warm enough to remind us that we, Yes WE my friends are the hands of God that make a difference, and I, lonely, sad, self-pitying, John Morehouse, was right there in those same angel arms, finding for the first time in years, a peace in my soul.

My way all find the grace of small miracles in this time of darkness.  May we all find peace in this season of light.
With Grace and Grit,     John

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chores of the Season

All of us live with daily chores. Taking out the trash, washing dishes, cleaning the toilet. How often do we see those tasks as sacred work? How often do we realize the deeper metaphors that simple work entails? One friend told me recently that he loathed taking care of his ailing father. Here he was changing his father’s diapers as his father had once changed his. It made him feel something between disgust and pity. Until the day came when his Dad turned to him and said, “I am so sorry son that you have to do this”. Suddenly, he saw the man, not the figure he had resented all those years, suddenly his heart burst with love, an angel within giving him the wisdom to understand that all of us need love no matter what. With tears in his eyes he kissed his dad on the cheek and said “Its no problem Dad, I am just paying you back. I love you.”

The first chore of our angels is to remind us to love and praise. Every angry word, every hurt, while not forgotten can be forgiven. But our angels also remind us to strive, to interfere with what is wrong with our world as Bobby Kennedy once said:

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or interferes with injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”

Most of all, I believe the chores of our angels is to help us expend energy where it is needed most. This may be the best scientific argument for angels I know of. The Catholic mystic Matthew Fox and the biologist Rupert Sheldrake make a compelling case that the law of entropy which states that energy flows from its highest to lowest forms might actually have a moral dimension. Who can say the Universe doesn’t think? Who can say we aren’t called to help those who have less energy, measured in money, shelter, health and love, than we have? (The Physics of Angels: 1996) After all, those rich Wall Street Bankers are not taking any of their money with them; they leave it to their kids or the ex-wife, or, if some see the light, maybe even a charity. You get to decide. And who is to say we aren’t being called by our better selves to expend that energy where it is needed most?

Bill and Melinda Gates have it right. Provide more than enough for your heirs but leave the rest to those who need it more than you ever would. Isn’t that a chore we can fulfill? Instead of bemoaning the fact that the Democrats have failed to provide a social safety net for those in need, why not take some of that tax you now won’t have to pay and do their job for them? Your church, a charity, a friend in need; you are already being called. It’s not a bother, it’s a privilege. It’s a sacred chore that might actually be calling us on this holiday season. From greater energy to lesser. The chores of our angels. Calling us to strive for a better world.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanks and No Thanks

It seems to me that every thanksgiving should have a time to remember what we want to do away with as much as what we are thankful for.  Perhaps this is the purpose of New Year's resolutions but what do we say 'no thanks' to?

I say no thanks to this economic recovery masquerading as "slow but steady".  If this is slow I would hate to see slower.  Yesterday the unemployment benefits for millions of Americans ran out because some in Congress think we are "coddling" the unemployed.  I know half a dozen people who are out of work and I can tell you that aren't feeling coddled by unemployment checks. They are desperately seeking work and barely surviving.

I say no thanks to pretending that climate change isn't a reality just because the party in power says so.  We are melting.  And we need to do something about that now.

I say no thanks to putting up with bullies, whether those we know personally or public figures who think they can call us ungrateful. The reality is that  most people want to do the right thing if they have the means.  In this troubled world, it is sometimes hard to remember the less fortunate. Still most of us try.

Today at the grocery store I saw a woman, while clearly not wealthy herself, gave an extra twenty dollars to the feed the hungry program at the check out.  She inspired me to give forty.

I still give thanks for the millions who, despite their own troubles give food, shelter and money to those in need this holiday season.  They are the real angels on earth, the true embodiment of grace.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, November 13, 2010

We Are All Ministers

Many years ago I served a small church that always seemed to be clean. I mean spic and span clean. And painted. I had assumed that all this good work was being done by the small group of volunteers that took care of the grounds. I recognized them for the cleanliness of the place from the pulpit. After the service a woman came up to me and said “Rev. John we appreciate your comments about the building but it wasn’t our doing. It was Glenn.” “Glenn?” I asked in amazement. “Yes” she said, “he comes in here very late every Saturday night and cleans this place spotless.” I looked around but Glenn was not in the coffee crowd. As I asked around I learned even more. Glenn turned out to be doing important ministry. Not only did he clean the church but he made sure that the few shut ins in our congregation had their homes picked up as well. It occurred to me that I had missed something very important.

That afternoon I stopped by his house. Glenn was a bachelor, living simply. “Come in Rev. John” he said, as if he had been expecting me. He offered me coffee, “Glenn I had no idea it was you who was cleaning the church each week….” He put up his hand “Now I don’t want to talk about that, that is nothing. I don’t have much money to give so it’s the least I can do.” Wow! I thought to myself, if that’s the least you can do, I’d like to see the most! I was incredibly humbled. I was about to be even more so. “John” he said, “I’m dying. I didn’t feel well this morning which is why I didn’t make it to church. I don’t want your pity, although prayers would be nice, this can’t be changed, I have the cancer. I’m 87 years old, it’s been a good life and I am ready to go. But before I go, I need you to know about the money. I am leaving the church in my will and I want the money to go to two things; a new garden and some playground equipment for those kids. Will you see to that?” I was in awe of his ministry and generosity. “Yes Glenn” I said quietly, “I will see to that”. “There is one more thing Rev. John” “What’s that Glenn?” “I don’t want any recognition of my decision until after I die.”

One year later, on a cold spring day we dedicated a new garden and play ground set to a man who understood what ministry was really about.  I believe we all have a ministry, a grace to give the world.  If only we will set it free.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, October 22, 2010

You Choose

Too often I think we judge the world, others and ourselves by someone else’s measure of what should be. I am the exact same age as George Clooney. I look nothing like him, nor am I as rich, nor as smooth. But seriously, why would I want to be George Clooney? If I were George Clooney, I wouldn’t be a minister, I wouldn’t be serving a church I love, I wouldn’t be married to the love of my life, I wouldn’t have the children and grandchildren I adore. I am who I am for a reason, I may not understand that reason but I do my best to meet the challenges of each day with grace and humor. That is choosing to live out the potential I am given. I make mistakes but I try to learn from them, for mistakes are part of our potential as well.

We can look at the world any number of ways; as half full or half empty, as wanting or more than enough. We can see ourselves and each other as yet unrealized potential of compassion and love or as selfish beings ruled by the secular virtues of possession, consumption or competition. Each view is actually valid. So you get to choose. Which will it be? Am I a person waiting to be even more giving or a person afraid there won’t be enough love or money to keep me safe? Which will it be? Will we celebrate our gifts and try to reach out to those in need, or will we believe we can’t really afford that, we have to tighten our belt, get real, survive. Each of these world views is a potential. But we get to decide, individually and collectively. We choose.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Agonistic Respect

Today we stand at the cross roads of pluralism. Layers upon layers of identity create frictions of differing world views, greased from one to the next by the media and the internet. The debacle over the burning of the Koran, despite a worldwide out pouring of tolerance and restraint shows us just how powerful identities can be and how difficult it can be to find a middle ground. The six decade struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is the longest running example of the ugly side of pluralism.

The sad news is that this will not get any easier. With the speed of media transmission and the demise of news reporting towards the blogs of political position staking, we are in a world of agony. What will save us? How can we help save this world?

I have been struggling with this question for many years. All my professional life I have believed that we could dismantle fears through understanding and dialogue. I founded an interfaith alliance after the attacks of 9/11. I have invited Muslims to preach in my pulpits. I partnered with a Pentecostal minister to achieve civil rights in housing and employment. I have initiated discussion groups with Christians, Jews and Muslims. I have done all this, and while I and those who participate feel good about that work, I have to say honestly that I am not sure it has made much difference.

What I found is that inclusive pluralism does not necessarily lead to meaningful social change. Increasingly, I found myself frustrated with the reluctance of inter-faith organizations to work together towards change practically (such as feeding the hungry) much less politically (such as taking a policy stand on hunger). The dialogue we encouraged seemed to keep us safe from our differences as long as it was wrapped in the mantle of respect. These inter-faith organizations shied away from action because to do so would be to offend the other or, even worse, to risk censure by the religious authorities these good meaning people had to report to.

The result of this was a disappointment and a retreat for me. Not only did I begin to disengage from inter-faith work, but I stopped trying to involve others in that work.

Something, fortunately, has changed. I realized it this summer while studying in Chicago. It was there that I met young and committed people, Unitarians, Buddhists and Christians who understood that while dialogue is a first step, ultimately it takes something more. And that something more is happening.

Micah’s Porch is a universalist community church in Chicago dedicated to bringing people of radically different religious and political views together for worshipping the God of Love and, more importantly working together side by side to change the world (see link below) . And the important characteristic is that the members of this church are almost all under forty, most under thirty years of age. Evangelical Christians alongside professed pagans working on the front lines of a soup kitchen. The more I learned about this model, the more enchanted I became. Could this actually be the respect that might save our increasingly pluralistic world?

There is a generational shift occurring right around us. I believe we must acknowledge that shift and be a part of it or we will fade into mediocrity as people of faith. The prevailing theology of fundamentalism is there is only one way: One mountain, one path. Those of you who are older than me are inclusive of other religions: One mountain, many paths but our path is best ;). My late boomer generation is more pluralistic, believing that we may not have the best path towards ultimate meaning: One mountain, many paths, take your pick. The generation of my children, are “radical pluralists”; willing to engage from multiple faith perspectives: Many mountains, many paths, (and a few valleys) all good. Our role  must be not to hold stubbornly to what we once were (you are welcome but here is how we do things) to helping us shift to what our more progressive children call “many kinds of welcomes”.  We will need to create more, not less, spiritual opportunities; pagan circles, Buddhist meditation, even bible study. But even more important than that is how we can partner with people who are agonizingly different than us. Religious liberals working alongside members of a fundamentalist church.

The name for this paradigm shift is what the philosopher William Connolly calls “agonistic respect”, centered on social action towards the most vulnerable in our community. “Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented ...the importance of the struggle itself.” (Wikipedia)

Agonistic Respect. Agonizing as in agony. Respect as in accepting the other people as people. Protecting your enemy from an unjust death. Building a house with someone who thinks that even though you seem nice, you are going to hell because you have not accepted Jesus as your only savior.

The reason we have to do this is because the alternative is untenable. We can remain for the next fifty years being comfortable with who we are, attracting and surrounding ourselves with people just like us or we can be truly open to grace: we can make an effort to work alongside others who are very different than us.

Where talking fails to promote a radical pluralism in this post modern age, perhaps acting will. In Connolly’s words: “…Agonistic respect is a cardinal virtue of deep pluralism.” We might actually learn more about what we truly believe, not in discussion groups, but in action groups. Less talking more doing.  Facing grace through our actions not our words.

One of my greatest insights recently was that I have been measuring success with the wrong yard stick. I have been trying to create a common theology from which our action can emerge, when what is needed is to engage in a common action through which theological understanding can emerge. The kind of trust that comes from working together breaks down the barriers that exclusivist doctrines have erected. By working alongside people of different, even agonistic faith positions, we will not only broaden our own religious understanding, but encourage those of other faiths to broaden theirs.

Perhaps even more importantly such multi-faith action will move us towards relevancy with the next generation of radical religious pluralists. Rather than arguing or even acting from within a doctrine, such multi-faith social justice orientations might open doors of understanding and deepen our faith. The Christian proclamation “That if you want peace work for justice” can just as easily be understood by the Buddhist understanding “That if you want justice work for peace”. True pluralism might actually be more likely among those engaged in multi-faith justice making which actually compels us to live out our beliefs in the company of others who might challenge those beliefs.

And when you truly understand the other you soften the edges of your differences. I am not saying we are all the same anymore. We are different in more and more ways all the time. Where before we could unite under the banner of our nationalities or political persuasions, I realize now that our pluralism has overtaken those identities. They are not enough to hold us together. The downside of so much diversity is a tendency to segregate into smaller groups. That is how a wacko Pentecostal minister in Florida can get the President of the United States to pay attention to him. He never claimed to represent Pentecostalism, just his little church “doing the work of the Lord” by burning Korans.

What will hold us together beyond our increasing pluralism is a respect of the other as other. The generations that will follow us will not have the ability to unite us all in a "brotherhood of man". But they will have the time to take on projects together that help people in need.  And that may just be enough to save the world.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, September 9, 2010

We Must Be Prepared

This Saturday will be the ninth anniversary of 9/11 a time when the terror of the world came home. In many ways, not much has changed since then; the poor are still getting poorer and the rich richer. Corporations have more power than before. And we are clearly the world’s imperial power. But in other ways, subtler, and more personal, life has changed for almost all of us. We grieve those losses still, with a mixture of sorrow and righteous anger. We have politicized that anger in our foreign policy and we have ratified our fear domestically through terror alerts and homeland security.

Our world is such a fragile place. A pastor in Florida is planning on burning Korans this Saturday in protest to Islam as “a religion of the devil”. Religious pundits are making political hay from speaking out against an Islamic center being built near the World Trade Center. Religious intolerance seems as prevalent today as it was on 9/11/2001. If we ever needed to work toward restoration in our world and even among ourselves this would be the time.

What happens after a traumatic event, an illness, a disaster, a fight, or the loss of a loved one is that we tend to lose our way. We become fearful, we change. We hunger for a return to our true and better selves. I believe that all this anger and conservative backlash, including Glenn Beck’s “I Have a Scheme” speech on the National Mall around the same time MLK gave his dream speech a while back, is a misguided attempt at restoration. A return to what is familiar is often born of fear.  What we need, rather, is a return to promise and hope, along with the loss and change which brings us through our darker hours.
In order to be restored we must be prepared to speak out against fear.  We must be prepared to speak truth to ignorance.  We must be prepared to bear witness to reason and love. We must be prepared to stand on the side of love.
With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Different About Indifference

We talked long into the humid summer evening about what was so different about Unitarianism. He reminded me that we have led the way on immigrant rights in opposing the new law in Arizona, which we now seem to be the leading denomination. “But” he reminded me “you have sterilized your faith of one the greatest difference makers of all time: Jesus” And then that minute he emailed me a poem by the Christian poet, Studdart Kennedy:

“When Jesus came they hung him on a tree

They drove nails through his hands and feet and made Calvary

They crowned him with a crown of thorns red his wounds and deep

For those who were crude and cruel days and human flesh was cheap

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed him by

They never hurt a hair of him they only let him die

For men have grown more tender and they would not give him pain

They only passed down the street and left him in the rain

Still Jesus cried “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” and still it rained the winter rain and drenched him through and through

The crowds went home and left the streets without a fight to be

And Jesus crouched against the wall and cried for Calvary.”

When he continued he was quieter now, clearly feeling his way to the right words as a former Southern Baptist, “Jesus” he said “can still be a hero for all of us. He represents our collective struggles; sometimes tortured, but more often ignored. That’s what so many don’t get about Christianity. We focus so much on the exclusion, but all of us feel wounded, as Jesus reminds us, all of us suffer. And sometimes the worst suffering is to be ignored.”

The worst kind of indifference comes from ignoring the very existence of another. How many of us good meaning folks, he asked me, just go sleepwalking by the ones who are most vulnerable, perhaps even in our own communities?

I thought about my own dark moments of the soul. When my business and marriage were failing, I would have given anything to have someone notice the beast perched on my shoulders, but no one wanted to interfere. His point was well made: the first step to undo the indifference in our lives may be to recognize that the person next to you may be angry or surly for a reason. And then to ask “what is happening with you?”

Normalcy can be a mask of indifference. So often evil is done not by the people who are bad, but by people who do nothing. When the Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in the early days of the civil rights movement, the good white folks kept their distance, only the Unitarian minister, his president and another lay person walked down the dusty lane to pay their condolences. All they said was that they were sorry and then everyone, black and white cried. It didn’t change the bombing but it changed the world after the bombing. “All it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good people to do nothing” wrote Edmund Burke. Poor election results are only a symptom of what we need to see. That we have to care; we have to feel the Jesus in all of us. And we have to care with seeing that pain in those closest to us.

We can make a difference with our money and our time but most of all with how we notice the differences with those we know and love. The difference we make is so much more than you think; even the smallest moments of kindness can reverberate through the universe.

With grace and grit, John

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Forests

I just left the Maine coast where our family has a summer cabin.  The trip was elegantly restful.  The mornings were spent reading, writing and, after breakfast, repairing the old cabin.  We have become the quintessential American family much to our dismay; a family scattered on two coasts who dreams of coming together again someday.  The cabin in Maine, first envisioned by my mother, and built by our families over three decades, is as close to home as we have.  I call it my "soul's home" and I find I must repair to its simplicity every summer.

After lunch, we went hiking.  The Maine woods, especially coastal Maine, is a more sylvan experience than the crashing California surf line I call my current address.  The woods are old; built on thousands of years of vegetative waste atop solid granite, they unfold to the sea shore, all roots, and moss and streams.  To walk in them towards the coast, especially at high tide, is to meet an old friend.

Frances remained on the island to work and meet our daughter Emma and her friends for another week.  I stepped off the ferry onto a bus and then a plane for the trip west, shocked at how jarring the so-called 'real' world can be when you have been virtually disconnected from the web.  Indeed, the web, as Nicholas Carr in his new book The Shallows points out, throws a net over our minds, limiting our attention, and flattening our ability to do deep thinking.  Another argument for the spiritual practice of reading a real book for an hour a day.

Arriving in Oregon, I, son-in-law Aaron and grandkids went for a beautiful hike into the mountains to see the most amazing waterfall.  As we hiked along the rushing stream, I commented how different this forest was from the sylvan woods of Maine; more majestic, even dramatic, dry and towering, the water of the falls shouting out into the cathedral of trees.  Indeed, these are much younger and impetuous hills. Where the forest of downeast Maine was restful, the forests of the Oregon Cascades were thrilling.  Each has its place.

All of which helped me realize that grace meets us in different ways.  The throb of mediocrity, can, if we permit it, yield to new resolve.  The thrill of excitement can give way to a serious reflection on why more of our life isn't that way.  The weariness of body and soul can find rest in a simple walk in the woods. 

In a week I return to Southern California and the more pressing work of our congregational life.  I am deeply thankful for the forests and the space they have provided me.  Even more thankful for the nature of my vocation that helps me step back and see not only the trees but the very leaves that give them life.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

At Least We Can Try

I just finished an intensive course in public theology at Meadville/Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago. Other than the blistering heat, the ideas and energy expressed by my colleagues, gave me hope about the future of our faith as progressive liberals.  One of the primary ideas came from our professor Dr. Micheal Hogue.  Drawing on the work of William Connolly, Dr. Hogue expressed the need to embrace the radical pluralism of the new generation of thinkers: multiple platforms of understanding, respectfully co-existing around projects that help the most vulnerable. 

The most challenging task for me is to bring those of radically different, even antagonistic faith traditions together around such projects.  Its one thing for Unitarian Universalists and Catholics to work together toward the promise of justice, quite another to ask a fundamentalist who doesn't even think the world is worth saving.

At the end of the day, I realized, what matters is that we at least try.  Grace works its way into our lives when we prepare the way for the possibility of very different people to work together.  If we throw up our hands and say it can't be done, the only certainty is that it won't. 

I walked away understanding that justice can be done, even between those who see the world differently; not because we are all the same, but because God calls us to help in more than one way.

Now if I can just get that idea down in less than twenty pages while enjoying our retreat to Maine.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Grace of Neighbors

While I was serving as the Chair of the Human Relations Commission in Frederick, MD we heard from one woman, an African American who had moved into a very white neighborhood. She had just lost her husband and son in a traffic accident, and, as a single Mom, she was doing her best to raise her other son. Her new home was to be a place of hope and renewal. It turned out to be a living hell. Her next door neighbor, a bigoted and angry man started calling her the ‘n’ word. When she ignored him, he upped the ante. He started calling the police and telling them she was trespassing on his land. She put up a fence. He installed video cameras over the top of the fence. She put up tarps, he built a watchtower. Her life was so out of control. Her neighbors became her saving grace. They took turns watching her house while she was at work. They walked her son to the bus stop. When finally, this hate filled man blasted this poor woman with a high pressure hose, she went to the police to file charges. They had been expecting her. In fact, because of her neighbors they already had a task force assigned to stop this madman. But as I found out, stopping hate is not so easy. He had a good lawyer. But because of her neighbors, and a new hate crime bill that had just passed the Maryland State legislature, he was convicted, forced to move and she had her life back.

I commend to you a sense of neighborliness when life is out of control. We had our first break in in our neighborhood since we moved here five years ago. Someone broke into our neighbor’s home across the street while she was away at Fourth of July festivities. She might have scared them off because she heard noises coming into her home and nothing was taken. She phoned everyone in the neighborhood to let them know this had happened. Yes, she was still shaken, her life out of control, but she wanted her neighbors to be aware since the police had told them there were other break-ins nearby. Our neighbors were sympathetic, my wife Frances brought her a big bouquet of sunflowers. Our neighbor placed them in her front window for all to see. A sign of compassion in her life which for a while seemed so out of control. This might just be the summer to learn your neighbor’s names. Think of it as a spiritual practice.

The feminist author Annis Zinn once wrote: “We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” As we face the trouble of our lives, when life is most out of control, take a deep breath, look around, so what you can do, ask for help and help others. Julian of Norwich put it best, “all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Enjoy your summer and get to know your neighbors.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, July 9, 2010

Out of Control? Act on What Matters Most!

As we were preparing to cross the bridge over the Columbia River on our way to my daughter Courteny’s winery in Washington State, we had motioned for an older gentleman to merge in front of us in the line waiting to pay the toll. He smiled and waved. When we got to the toll booth the attendant told us that he had paid our 75 cent toll for us. He was just pulling away as we were approaching. And, we imagine, he was looking into his rear view mirror to see our smiles and waves of appreciation and then BAM! his car hit the median curb, threw off his hub cab and flattened his tire! All because he was looking at us in the rear view mirror. He was already on the bridge at that point and – because it is a very narrow bridge – he kept driving on the rim to the other side because he knew if he stopped it would tie up traffic for hours. We jumped out, retrieved his hub cap and followed him over to the other side.

His car was pulled over on the shoulder. It was an older car and in pretty sad shape. I stopped and got out. “Are you all right?” I asked. “I am fine” he said in a very slow speech. It occurred to me he was deaf as well. “You did a beautiful thing back there, paying our toll for us. We are heartbroken that you have a flat tire for your trouble.” Thinking to myself, no good deed goes unpunished. “Can we help you change it? Do you have someone we can call?” He kept insisting he was all right, that someone was coming. Talk about life going out of control. We drove away. We had gone some miles down the road and Frances turned and said “its not right”. I said, “no its not” and although we were five miles down the road we swung back around. As we approached, someone else had come, family it seemed, and they were helping with the tire. I pulled out all the money I had in my wallet, $60 and gave it to Frances. She jumped out and handed it to him. “Thank you for helping us” she said, “let us help you, this is for a new tire”. He put up his hands “no, no” he said, “I can’t”. “Yes you can” said Frances “you can pay it forward someday” and she stuffed the money in jacket pocket and jumped back in the car. He ran up to us both smiling and shaking his head, “no I can’t” but Frances had closed the door and we smiled and waved and drove away. And as I watched in my rear view mirror I could see he was saying “God Bless You!”

It is when life is most out of control that I believe we must act upon what matters most. Sometimes it as simple as taking time to pray or meditate or walk; finding that still point within matters a great deal to me. So does affirming our place in the human family. Sure there are mean people who will take advantage of us, but more likely, the small acts of compassion we show, help us take control of that part of our lives that matters most, our sense of caring and self-worth.

Enjoy the summer's ride.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Thursday, July 1, 2010

There is More Than Enough

I have never been a big fan of the fourth of July.  The loud noises scare dogs and little children.  I am also a bit ambivalent celebrating what our country has become; an imperial power in a world  of need and want.

Still, I do believe that the fireworks should go off for what our nation still can promise: a freedom to believe, a chance to create, and a home for those in need.  I will continue to work for meaningful immigration reform so that all those who want to be a part of our dream are able.  It is sad that fear and bigotry are running wild across our great land.  We need to be the voice from the other side.

There is more than enough for those in need.  There is more than enough love.  More than enough food.  More than enough jobs.  More than enough, if we look at the glass half full. 

Representative Keith Ellisons recent address to the General Assembly of the UUA says its best:

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, June 4, 2010

Blessing the World

There is an old joke about what you get when you cross a Jehovah Witness and a UU: someone who knocks on your door and asks you what you believe. Well, that is not so far from the truth. We need to create opportunities to create new meaning.  To value what the other has to say, to speak the truth in love.

But that won’t be enough to change our world; the world our young people stand to inherit. It won’t be enough to have communities of people ready to ask new and probing questions and suggest exciting new ideas about why we are here. We will actually need to change the world. Or at least create  opportunities to change the world. As the President of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Dr. Rebecca Parker puts it “It is not enough to celebrate inherent worth and dignity and assert confidence in the gradual evolution of progress….UUs tend to focus on values and ideals as the foundation of social justice work…motivated by something that does not exist: an imaginary better world…” (From her essay “Resisting Evil, Reverencing Life” in A People So Bold). We tend to place more faith in humanity than is warranted. Our young people know this, while perhaps we like to forget.

Evil is a real force in ourselves and our lives and it must be resisted. So any growing on from who we are now for the next three generations will have to deal more effectively with this reality. How? Young people consistently tell us that they want to DO something. It doesn’t have to be much, and it doesn’t have to be new; we can hang onto someone else's project. But Dr. Parker suggests something else to engage us and the next three generations even more powerfully: Don’t forget to Bless the World. Don’t forget to celebrate life. Don’t lose sight of the fact that we make a difference simply by being here.

Some have complained that I don’t spend enough time in my preaching railing against the injustices of the world. I don’t but for good reason. If I did so what? What if I rail on about poverty or the oil spill? Will that change our world anymore than making our anger at it all more justified? We are already angry, if we are paying attention. What we need to be are a angry and gentle people. To provide opportunities to change the world outside Sunday morning and then use our time together to bless what is good about life. As Rebecca Parker puts it “The foundations for social justice work need not be a dream of what could be. It can, instead, be doxology – praise for the gift of life, delight in what we have tasted and seen of beauty, love, tenderness, courage and steadfastness.” (Ibid, Parker)

We begin by blessing the world and then acting out of that blessing.

With grace and grit,  John

Friday, May 14, 2010

Holidays and Holy Days

Holidays and Holy Days

Unlike many other Western Democracies, America has always had a fluid relationship between the sacred and the secular. Despite the so called separation of church and state, religious symbols are permitted on the occasional public property and God is on our money. Nowhere is this push and pull more evident in our national holidays. We close governments and business for Christmas and Easter, but rarely for Yom Kippur. In a diverse nation such as ours it might be tempting to expand this list, save for the fact that every day is religious holiday in some tradition and we would soon find ourselves permanently on vacation. So we pick and choose, mostly according to those holidays celebrated by the greatest number of people. It will be interesting to see if this changes as Islam continues to grow in our country and the world.

It is part of our civic religion to celebrate religious holidays as civic reminders of our deepest values. While our founders did not establish our republic as a Christian nation, we are clearly informed by Christian values. It is entirely fitting to recognize Christmas as a holiday when it reminds us of the hope of new life and Easter as a holiday when it calls us to believe in the resurrection of what we hold most dear. In this way, we honor the holiness of what these holidays are celebrated for. I, for one, would like to see us expand that list, to include Jewish and Muslim holy days as well.

Equally important to our national character are those secular holidays which carry for us deeper and more sacred meanings. Presidents Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and even the Fourth of July, call us to remember what we most cherish about our past; the resolve of our leaders, the fight for equality and the can-do spirit of anyone fortunate to call this home.

Several holidays strike me as peculiarly sacred in their secular context. The first is Thanksgiving, although shadowed by our eventual decimation of native peoples by our European ancestors, the impulse to remind ourselves of our fortune strikes me as a sort of collective prayer; we thank God and fortune for what allows us to grow and change the world. Originally, Mother’s Day was a call to mothers everywhere to speak out for peace. None other than Julia Ward Howe, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote the original proclamation for a “Mother’s Day of Peace” following our bloody Civil War: “Arise then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears….Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience….” After repeated attempts, it wasn’t until 1914, in the midst of another great and bloody war, that President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly proclaimed a “Mother’s Day” on the second Sunday in May but without reference to its original pacifist intent. The meaning has evolved, noble as it is now, from a far more political foundation, to become sacred for us in a different way. It is altogether fitting that we celebrate the nurturing gifts of mothers.

Another such evolution is underway with Memorial Day. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. It has been recognized as a holiday in one form or another since after the Civil War. Some of us bemoan the erosion of its original meaning, honoring those who have fallen in the line of duty to a three day weekend famous as the official start of summer and an excuse for barbeques. For many years, I have celebrated the Sunday before Memorial Day in a more expanded sense; taking an opportunity to remember those who have passed on and celebrating the lessons and sacrifices they made for all of us.

Regardless of how you feel about a holiday recognizing those who have died in war, it is still a holy day if we remember that those soldiers, like all those we have known but who are gone, left us better for their living. I can imagine Memorial Day being the counter point to Mother’s Day, originally a day to honor war’s fallen, just as Mother’s Day honored those who fought for peace. I can imagine Memorial Day evolving into a day when we remember and honor all those whose lives have ended, just as we honor mothers for the life they brought into the world.

We are blessed as Americans in so many ways. Let us not get caught up in what a holiday once was, but imagine what a holiday could be: A reminder of what is most Holy and Sacred in our lives, and a time to celebrate that holiness as a people.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, May 7, 2010

Taking Stock

Taking Stock

I was almost amused at how much panic the stock market dip of this week caused people with money. Just when they thought it was safe to wade in the capital along comes some crisis in Greece and a few fat trading fingers and the whole house of cards comes crashing down. It recovered. Never mind that the Greek people will be suffering from this monetary puzzle for years, at least our stocks are safe.

If you spent a lot of time worrying about this, I would suggest you need to look at your priorities again. Real people are suffering in this recession. Those of us fortunate enough to have a little investment need to take a look at the bigger picture and imagine how we might be part of the solution in getting people back to work.

I believe that the best way to find the more of what we are looking for in life is to first take stock of what we have. Not in some platitude to an unnamed God but some real heartfelt appreciation of what few blessings we have. Thankfulness, I believe, is one of the touchstones of meaning and it helps us to adequately judge what we are really looking for in the world. When we take stock of what we really want we will often find it is not more things. “Imagine no possessions” sang John Lennon (although I am reminded that he was a millionaire).

Imagine (pray if you can) that the world could provide for each according to their needs. Imagine what it would mean to stand on the side of love, not profit, and take stock of what you have and what you can do with it.

With Grace and Grit, John

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Out of an Empty Tomb

What would it take for any of us to experience a resurrection, to come down off the cross and emerge from the tombs of our lives? “Life” observed an old friend of mine “is the tomb”. We are surrounded by finitude. There is only so much time to fill, only so much money to spend, the people we love die or they go away and our days are, more often than not, filled with sorrows punctuated by happiness. It was the Buddha who said, “life is attachment, and with that comes sorrow.” What would it take to emerge from the tomb and feel the sunshine on our faces once again?
Life can only come from death. One depends on the other. Only from the renewed earth do tulips rise to a warming sun, only from the ashes does the phoenix rise, only from the tomb does Jesus walk. Only from death comes life, physical or otherwise. Think about those new directions that your life took after some failing in another; the death of the loved one, a divorce, losing your job. The good news is this: Each of has an Easter waiting. It’s not reserved just for the holy, or even the courageous. Each one of us has the power of resurrection, right here and right now. Today, one of you is feeling the pain of a separation, today one of you is struggling with the demons of addiction, today one of you is feeling numb after seasons of meaningless labor, today, more than a few of us are feeling the chill of winter’s sorrows. We want to feel spring but it’s so hard!

What stands in our way? The stones of doubt, control, and fear. One of us must face a life of new choices but feels powerless to move. The stone of fear. A marriage seems stuck and while others have suggested how to get it going again we resist. The stone of control. We feel anger at a loved one for an almost unspeakable hurt. We know we need to forgive but how? The stone of anger. We need to make a decision about our future and soon, but what if the path we are considering is the wrong one? The stone of doubt. But even when these stones are rolled away some of us stay in the tomb, empty save for our fears of stepping out. It is not always easy.

But with hope, trust and love we can always try.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Great Expectations

Palm Sunday.

What were the people expecting that fateful day in Jerusalem? The messiah. Since the time of the great Kings of Israel and Judah, Saul and David and Solomon, the Jews had fallen into despair. Here were a people imprisoned literally by the Roman occupation and spiritually by a God as foretold by the prophets they would suffer for their wavering faith. This lone man, Jesus of Nazareth, held their promise of freedom. He defied authority, by proclaiming a New Kingdom of God, proclaiming the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Had not the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that one would be sent who “would be used by Yahweh to give light and salvation unto the world’ (Isa. 49:6), just as Jesus had done? Had not Isaiah said one would come “to liberate the suffering” (Isa. 61:1) “to guide the thirsty to water” (Isa. 44) and to “set all people free” (Isa. 42:7)? All as Jesus had proclaimed.

The coincidences were just too much for a people poor, hungry and enslaved. Their spirits ached for a new message, a new beginning, a new hope. The people wanted to belief in a savior, even though Jesus spoke of a different kingdom, they saw him as the savior for them now. Jesus, perhaps expressing his own darkness, knew he would die for the message he was bringing to the center of power. His expectation was death.

So perhaps it is for all of us. We elected Barrack Obama on the same message of hope. We placed upon him the mantle of a savior. And then, as with all leaders, we realized that he was not a savior, but a human being dealing with a complex and fractured world. Jesus would die in this story of Holy week. For a while we thought our dreams of a president who could deliver had died as well. A part of them has. We are all, I think, a bit disappointed in what he has been able, even willing to do to alleviate the ache of so many. But with the passage of Health Care Reform, as imperfect and inadequate as it is, we have some our dream back. The new loan principal forgiveness program announced by the President last week is yet another bright ray. Perhaps some relief is coming.

Not a moment too soon. Because just as those ancient Hebrews who placed such faith in Jesus on Palm Sunday knew all too well, economic injustice is the status quo of empires; Roman or American. Our poor, grow poorer every day. Our families, indeed even some in this church, have lost jobs, most certainly income. The minimum wage is still woefully below a living wage. We have so far to go. And yet our hope is strong. We still have Great Expectations. Easter Sunday always follows Good Friday.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Desperately Seeking Satan

Why must we hate? To answer that question I want to look at the nature of evil itself. Evil has been called many things; the devil, temptation, hatred, even the absence of good. I can remember in my first church in South Bend, IN we had a problem with cars being broken into during Sunday worship. While discussing what to do about this problem the board ran the range of explanations and solutions. “Maybe they are doing this because they hate Unitarians” or “This is the result of our capitalistic society, what we need is a revolution”, or "why are we even driving cars to church". Beyond calling the police, one member of the board, completely serious, offered to wait outside until he caught someone in the act and then explain to them how that was hurting other people. Being a native New Yorker, I declined his offer on the grounds that he might get shot. We ended up posting guards with cell phones to call the police.

Most of us don’t like to name evil as a force unto itself. After all we know what happens when you demonize another, we were once burned at the stake for our liberal views. Calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” or North Korea and Iraq “the Axis of Evil” is only the tip of the ice berg. And yet, I don’t think any of us would deny that we are capable of doing some pretty horrendous things. In fact, innocence seems to invite evil into our lives. Is it any wonder that we feel the need to caution our children about being hurt. I believe evil exists but it is born from fear and ignorance more than demonic possession.

Last week the local mosque was denied a building permit by the city council on grounds that the traffic would be too much. As I wrote to the editor, “What is sadder still is the not so thinly veiled fear (the building of the new mosque) engendered in people but that so many are unaware that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and loving people. After following the (paper's) blog on this issue, I am convinced that it is ignorance and fear that are more in play than parking. Invoking thanks to Jesus for the council's decision is particularly painful. Hate is not the doctrine of any religion.”

As Jonah Blank wrote in his book Arrow of the Blue Skinned God: “Most often evil lies not in the ends but in the means..Humanity’s finest aspirations produce its most hideous crimes – as soon as the goals come to dominate the methods (evil springs forth). Mao dreamed of a perfect human society and instituted the Cultural Revolution killing as many as 40 million. Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler all had visions beyond personal aggrandizement and that is what made them so dangerous. Dreams twisted but dreams nonetheless.” (Arrow of the Blue Skinned God, Double Day: 1993)

Evil exists in the shadow of us all. And evil seems to exist as a means to an end. It’s not that we want to do evil towards Muslims or women or the Afghans or the Earth, it’s that we are afraid and want to stop the fear, by any means. But just as evil exists in our souls so does love. The part we have to play is to shine more light into the darkness of fear and hate. We must name fear and hate where we see it although, I tend now to shy away from calling people and institutions evil, for in the name calling we fall prey to that same shadow. So then we must work to alleviate suffering and engender understanding. Simply standing witness, on the side of love, can loosen our need for Satan. We have the opportunity every day. Rather than blaming another, perhaps we would do better to create understanding. Rather than anger, why not a non-anxious presence? Be courageous in the face of bigotry. Tell people their racist or sexist or homophobic jokes aren’t funny.

Let's stop desperately seeking a satan to feed our fear.

With grace and grit, John

Friday, February 19, 2010

Love, Life and Death: A Valentine's Meditation

Love lives at the junction of life and death. Death is the reminder that our time is too precious to waste it on what and whom we don’t love. Life is the permission we have to keep loving until death takes us and then only our memory will serve as love’s force. When I first began my ministry I would pronounce a couple married until “the death in two people’s hearts”. What a self-help cop out! That was almost permission to throw in the towel! Then I shifted to pronouncing them married “until death do us part”. That was more like it. But only after I did a wedding for a former Mormon couple did I realize that I was still missing the point. Mormons believe that marriage is for eternity. In some ways, we are still married to the ones we first loved, still parents to the children we have lost, still connected to the parents now gone. I have revised my pronouncement once again, “I will love you, from each sun to each moon, from now to forever.”
Love never dies. It may be as immortal as time itself.

With grace and grit, John

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lost and Found

I was once interviewed by the children and I asked them what they think I do. They thought about this, and one boy said, “You talk to people on Sunday…" pausing for a moment and then adding “and they listen”. Amazing! Another girl said "the minister is one who marries people!" Nicely done! And then ensued an open discussion of what marriage means, and who in the class of preschoolers is in love with whom and who loves who but finds that love unredeemed and so on. There I was dispensing pastoral care and marriage advice to a bunch of preschoolers. Who says a young person's life isn't complicated?

When they got to Administrator’s job the kids were a little more perplexed. Just what does our administrator do? (Of course for those of us in the know the question is really what doesn't he do?!) Finally, one little girl hit upon the answer "Isn’t the administrator the one who runs the lost and found?" Indeed! An important function if you are a little person who has lost a favorite toy or blanket. Well, of course, the administrator is the lost and found department. In fact, we all are. The more I thought about our church as place for the lost and found, the more I realized that it was so true.

Why wouldn't our homes and communities be a place for the lost and found? We come having lost our way, lost our soul, lost a mate, lost a job, lost our shoes, lost our hope. I would hazard to guess that almost all who first come to my church come because something was lost in your life. Something needed desperately to find again even if it is just a reason to go on living. It might not be something as desperate as your life, but perhaps you are looking for something. What might that something be?

The days are growing longer but our troubles seem just as dark. Our economic recovery is slow and slower. People are out of work and in need. From ancient times we have been searching for a reason to go on through the darkness, lighting huge bonfires at the solstice to ward off the darkness and welcome the sun back into our lives. Every holiday harkens back to this primal urge to find what was lost. And so with each season, also with our lives. As the 23rd psalm reminds us "Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... " We go through the darkness to find light in our lives again, we don't stay there. Whether that light is Jesus, Mary, Krishna or any child born into this hurting world.

As Spring approaches, this season of expectation is a reminder that while darkness comes, lights always follows. While we may lose everything something or someone will take its place.

Twenty seven years ago I thought I had lost it all. Bankrupt, alone after a failed marriage, I was walking the streets of New York around Rockefeller Plaza on Fifth Avenue. I had turned onto a side street walking for no reason at all, It was cold, bitterly cold, Across the street hovered over a heating grate was a homeless person wrapped in a thin blanket. I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. Just then walking around the comer with great purpose came a well‑dressed businessman. He passed the person on the grate without looking at all. Suddenly, about 10 feet away he stopped, turned around and walked back to the homeless person. Without a moment's hesitation, he took off his expensive camel hair overcoat, draped it over the shoulders of this homeless person and reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of money and put it into her hand, Then picking up his briefcase walked on even more briskly as if he were trying to make up for lost time. I stood there watching this awe struck. True, that overcoat, which easily cost close to a thousand dollars, probably meant little to the rich man but to the homeless it was life itself. Leaving aside all the systemic reasons for homelessness for which the rich man was more part of the problem than the solution, I felt as if I was in the presence of a divine moment. Not the rich man, not the homeless person but the action of giving. It was a radical epiphany for me; a moment of profound realization that somehow life would be all right again. Whatever was lost in me (and to this day I couldn't tell you what that was) I found witnessing this holy act of love. Through the darkness new light was found.

I implore you to join together in searching for what was lost. I believe the light is what we all yearn for. If ever there was a place to begin your search for the lost, this is that place for the lost to be found. It may not come to us all at once. It may only be a hint, a small clue to our search, but let this place and this season be the time to search for it. You won't find it in the lost and found box in the close. But you may find a way through the darkness and back to the light with those we love.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Making Paradise

Of course, our hearts and our money must go out to the people of Haiti. They are living now in a hell far removed from paradise. I wonder what the early Christians, who suffered their own kind of hell under Roman domination would have to say. I have thought a great deal about John Corrado’s description that we are more interested in “getting heaven into people, rather than people into heaven.” In many ways, I believe this early understanding of Christianity is where we are bound as Unitarian Universalists and perhaps even, ultimately, as a human race.

Up until the advent of agriculture in the ancient world, our view of the world was eco-centered; that is our culture and our religion focused on the power of the earth as the giver of life. The goddess of the earth was in her ascension and the relationship between human survival and meaning was rooted in a certain obedience to the earth. This was the real garden of Eden; not free of want, but certainly free of eco-genocide. With the advent of agriculture and a surplus of food, control of those resources led to an increasing culture of domination by those who had the means of production, initially the priesthood and later kings. The earth became a thing to be manipulated and controlled for power. (See David Korten’s The Great Turning) With the increasing domination of empire, our view of what constituted paradise shifted away from what the earth could provide to what a distant deity would reward. In other words, the more power we gained, the farther paradise slipped from our grasp. For much of the last 3000 years we have come to believe that paradise could at best be walled off in private gardens on earth, or rewarded for following doctrine in the afterlife. (See David Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden) As empires grew we entered into what Harvey Cox has called “The Age of Belief” in which what we believe could save us or earn us ever lasting damnation. (See Cox’s The Future of Faith) The suffering crucifixion replaced the blessing of baptism as Christianity’s predominant symbol. Early Christianity, as a not yet empowered religion, recognized the ancient meaning of paradise as on earth. (Parker and Brock Saving Paradise) Echoing the words of Jesus, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within[a] you." Luke 17:21

We are, in other words, the community of God’s chosen, here to bring paradise into the now. This is, in fact, what our Universalist heritage teaches: not only are all of us not going to hell, but paradise is ours to make right now and right here. Give generously my friends.

With grace and grit, John