Friday, December 14, 2012

The Light Has Gone Out

It is a haunting tale. 

 The little match girl was sent out every day by her abusive father to sell matches on the street which the family made in the hovel of a home. If she did not return with all the matches sold and money in her pocket she was beaten. It was a cold, cold day before Christmas and the little match girl bundled up as best she could against the wind and the snow. “Matches for sale, matches for sale” came her weak and tired voice over the wind. 

It was so cold. No one seemed to be buying matches that day, as if they would all blow out if they bought them. Try as she might she had not sold a single box. Hungry and exhausted she found shelter from the snow and wind in a doorway. She couldn’t go back home without selling at least some of her matches. She tried again “matches for sale, matches for sale” but no one stopped. The rich hurried home to their warm homes in this dark time of the year.

The little match girl so cold, so hungry, looked into the widow of one the houses on the fine street she was on. There were lights in the windows and inside people were warm and a great feast was spread on the table. And around the table were people, well dressed and warm and laughing. A girl her age was there. Oh, she longed to be there. She ached to be in that room. The wind blew again, but the light in the window didn’t even flicker. 

She stepped from the window, finding the shelter of the doorway again. She was cold, so cold. She knew she couldn’t go home so she lit one of the packs of matches to stay warm. They glowed against the fading sun, warm in her hands. Ah, it felt so good. The little match girl lit another pack and this time she closed her eyes as she felt the matches warm her face. She imagined herself inside the lovely house, feeling the warmth of the fire. It felt so wonderful. When that pack burned out she opened her eyes and suddenly she remembered where she was and the cold returned. So she closed her eyes again and lit another pack, and now she imagined she was once again in the house with the light in the window eating all the good food, turkey with stuffing, potatoes dripping with butter, peeling back an orange she felt its sweet spray in her face, it all felt so good. The pack of matches died again but this time she didn’t feel the cold, in fact she couldn’t feel anything but her fingers holding that burned out back and the glow on her face.

She had only one pack now, and she closed her eyes and lit it again, transported into the room with a light in the window, warm and well fed and the little match girl remembered who she really was, not poor and cold and alone, but here in this family. She was home. And they remembered her! They called out her name. She felt home and she stared out the window beyond the candle into the snow beyond. It was so good to be home.

They found the little match girl’s body the next morning. All the matches had been burned and lay in a pile by her feet in the doorway. She had a smile on her face; she had found her way home.

Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the little match girl is perhaps the most troubling story of the Christmas season. Some have seen it as a justification for a better life in the hereafter for those who suffer in this. While in some sense that may be true, I find it instead to be bitter testimony to the tragedy of poverty. I think there is a deeper message which incorporates both the spiritual release and indignant justice this story suggests. 

 And it has something to do with a light in the window. John Turrant in his book The Light Inside the Dark writes “Everything new needs to be held, needs a place into which it can be born. The container which hold is character…character is the vessel which holds our swirling selves. We do not always have a say in all that befalls us but we do have a say in the shape of our character…” As the little match girl dreamed her character as a brave little girl transformed her in spite of all reality.

And of course, we need an even brighter light with the horrific murders of 27 people, 20 of them little children who will never see the light of their earthly homes again. Our hearts ache for the families, for the loss of innocence, for a country that still allows this madness of gun ownership to trump the rights of the innocent to come home ever again.

The light has gone out. It is up to us to light it again.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, November 30, 2012

Coming Home to Buddha

With the second of our Four Horsemen of the Holiday Apocalypse behind us (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's) we contemplate the place of home in our lives. 

Throughout this month we will be exploring the meaning of home from its promise through its disappointments. There is so much expectation packed into this time of year that it is little wonder many of us teeter on the edge of a breakdown. Whose home should I go to? Where do I go if I can't or won't go home? What should I bring to this season of giving that feels like home? How can I even afford to give at all?

Normally, I would be contemplating the advent of Jesus' birth this time of year. Rest assured, there will be a place and time for that, But let me first suggest another prophet equally suited to the holiday season: The Buddha. The Buddha taught that the root of suffering in the world was our expectations of how life should be. And aren't expectations the very reason for this season? The holidays should bring me joy but I feel worry. The holidays should bring me gifts but I only feel the guilt of not being able to give. The holidays should make me long for home but I am not even sure where home is. It is so easy to be disappointed with the expectations of this season.

So this holiday season I say RELAX. Less things, more people. Less worry, more joy living in the present.  Be in community, enjoy the company, the music and the food. Make this your homecoming.
With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, November 16, 2012

Invited to the Feast

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? 

A young lawyer, a Hebrew Scholar concerned with Torah asks Jesus  “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus replies:  "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and left him half dead by the side of the road.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road and when he saw the beaten man passed by him on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed him by  on the other side of the road.   But a Samaritan, as he journeyed came to where he was and when he saw him, he had compassion and went to him, bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him…And the next day he took out two denariie and gave them to the innkeeper saying “Take care of this man and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I return”.  Which of these three, Jesus asked, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?  And the lawyer replied  “The Samaritan, the one who showed mercy upon him”

Most of us have heard this story before.  But how many of us have thought of the story beyond its moralizing and guilt ridden message.  All of us, myself included, have crossed the street to avoid the panhandler.  And what do we feel?  Guilty.  To get the full impact of what I have to say we have to have a little biblical context.  Jesus’ choice of characters in this parable was intentional and courageous to his first century audience.  The priest, the very image of purity for Jews, was charged with upholding the law.  And part of that law included mercy and compassion.  It was the height of hypocrisy to suggest that a priest would not help the fallen.  But perhaps, said the Jews of his time, the priest was late for the temple.  

Well what about the Levite?  Well, the Levites were one the 12 tribes of Israel who traditionally acted as subordinate priests and functionaries in the temple.  They cleaned up after the slaughter.  So they were a little less holy than the priest but still pretty pious and bound by law, a common man with divine intentions.  But the Levite passes by the fallen man as well.  So along comes the Samaritan.  Now what made this story so very outrageous is that the Jews had utter and absolute contempt for the Samaritans.  Samara was a little country between the northern and southern halves of Israel not too unlike Palestine today. Samara retained the “mixed blood” of Jews and Babylonians who had intermarried. It was, in Jewish eyes, a pigsty of half breeds.  So for a Samaritan, a stranger, to help a fallen Jew, while his fellow Jews passed him by was outrageous.  Not only was it unclean, it was an insult to Judaism.  But then again Jesus wasn’t known for being subtle.

All of us has crossed the street to avoid the panhandler. I would hope that we are mature enough to have a conscience that moves us towards pity.  The meaning I am looking for here is actually a deeper one.  Why was it that Jesus picked an alien, a real stranger in his midst, to help the fallen?  What was he trying to say?  I believe the deeper point is this: helping those we know may not be enough, the true calling to our humanity is to help those who are not like us, the Samaritan helping the Jew, the American helping the African, the Democrat helping the Republican, the Unitarian Univesalist helping the Christian.  Not agreeing with, but helping.  I believe the deeper point to this parable is that we are all invited to the feast of life but it’s up to the rest of us to be sure there is a chair.  And we need to find more chairs. 

 And remember, it may not be about  you.    The hospitality we enjoy is not just a nice meal.  A feast of the spirit. We are called to search for the chairs, to welcome those to this feast, yes, even if we don’t agree with each other.  Isn’t that the real story of Thanksgiving?

Charles Eisenstein wrote a fabulous book entitled  Sacred Economics in which he talks about money not as evil but as a blessing.  Up until the advent of modern capitalism, people used to take care of one another in communities.  Now we hire it done.  Money has come to no longer represent our best intentions but our fears.  We need more and we hold on to more.  I have personally given away several fortunes in my life and each of them has been returned to me.  Eisenstein talks about money as the grave of the commons.  What used to be the commons of our community; cards, friends, taking care of each other’s kids, caring for the elderly, has become something we pay for.  Communities are spiritual commons, a place wherein we can be fed and feed others not just physically but emotionally with greater meaning.  Isn’t this what we are all hungry for?  A place where we are welcomed as we are and affirmed? 

Yesterday, I served at the Habitat for Humanity build site in Lynnwood working with people of other faiths to renovate a home for someone in need.  The reason I think Habitat is so important is because it pulls us out of our comfort zone and helps others to sit at the table of love.  Mildred Fuller and his wife were fabulously wealthy and utterly miserable, their marriage was on the rocks, they had lost their faith until they heard of this idea to build and renovate homes for those who were the working poor, a hand up, not a hand out.  Over 500,000 houses later, HfH is going strong here and in 91 countries around the world.

Would any of us be willing to take the homeless to the nearest hotel and put them up with Breakfast in the morning and put it on your Visa?  I sometimes do this for people in need.  Some of you have gone to extraordinary lengths to help those you don’t even know. It feels right.  You get double green stamps on the Karma scoreboard for helping.

But what if those we are helping to find a seat at this feast of life aren’t like us?  What if you knew that the person you are helping supports my country right or wrong, prayer in school and is against abortion?  Still willing to help?  Put it another way, what if we had to invite the wounded and struggling of our society to live in our home?  Really.  Because that is what Jesus was asking the rich man to do:  sell everything you own and give it all away.  It’s much more than just saying we are open.  We actually have to be open to the other.  It makes true Christianity much harder than we hear it portrayed, what was it that G.K. Chesterton said? “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has hardly been tried.”

For me the essential meaning of this parable lies in the idea of the stranger.  Perhaps our greatest human fragility is not greed or fear but strangeness.  The word stranger, means different, at odds with the whole, as in the word, estranged. The antidote to the fear of the stranger is to make their acquaintance.  Those Mexicans, those Christians, those whatever, are not those if they are sitting with us at the table. Its one thing to be invited to the feast, but quite another to come and be searching for a chair.

What would it take for us to accept and honor another’s belief in say their profession in Christ?  How would we respond to someone who is here, perhaps right now, wondering if they are saved from the hell of their own lives?  We carry much more pain and struggle than most of us know.  I know, I am your minister.  But are we really open to hearing from each other and the those new in our midst about what pains them

Beyond that there is much more hospitality to be done. The point is to invite each other to the table of life, this table we call this church, and to be open to what they bring.  We cook the turkey, others bring the fixings.  Finding a seat means being willing to scoot your own fanny over a bit and share the chair.

Invited to the feast .  Its about each of you.  Some of you will have family to gather with this week Some of you will wish you didn’t have to have family over.  Some of you will share thanksgiving with our own Sandy McNeil.  Remember the ideas behind our Guest at Your Table drive.  Everyone needs a seat at the feast.  Live and let live.  Learn to see the familiar even in those  you know perhaps too well.  Listen to what they love, relate to them on that common ground, say a blessing in the name of universal religion; love, the great commandment of Jesus.  Don’t be afraid to talk politics, or religion.  We have much to say about what is right and wrong even if we don’t use the same book. You too can speak that truth.  But listen as well.  That is what it means to find a seat for someone else. And for those who are not with family this Thanksgiving, take heart, we are your family.  There will always be a seat here.  We are not strangers once we have met.

We are surrounded by so much, sometimes we forget why we really are here.  Or as Saint Francis de Salle wrote, “whom do we love least?  That is the degree to which we truly love at all’  (adapted).  We are here to change the world, one stranger at a time, whether it is in this church, in our homes, or in our neighborhoods.  Strangers aren’t strangers once they find that chair at the table of life and you can be the one to pull up a chair.

Happy Thanksgiving, John

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Expanding Faith Against Evil

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the storms of division preceding our presidential election, I offer the following reflection from last Sunday's sermon about the nature of real evil and our response to it.  While I don't believe nature commits evil acts, our human response to natural tragedy depends upon which side of moral divide we place ourselves.  Most of the time we are well meaning, good doing creatures, but we have the power to submit to the dark side of our natures.

There is no evil in who we elect as our president only in the prejudices and the hurtful acts we attached to these men.  Evil is real and it resides in our own hearts.  What we do with that evil is the place of faith expanding.

"Our faith is expanded when we fight against evil. Yes, I said good and evil. Let me start with evil. Regardless of where you think evil comes from; we have to believe evil exits. It is not merely the absence of good. It is a force unto itself. The perpetrators might not call themselves evil but the taking of innocent life is the worst manifestation of wrongful doing. Evil exists in our world. Accept that as a faith statement and face it squarely.  Now the question is what can we do about it? This is the place of good. We believe in good. 

Who hear remembers the story about the Old Italian couple who planted new grape vines in a vineyard they would never see to fruition in the shadow of a coming war? The impetuous young man walks by and asks “Old man, why do you plant what you will never taste the fruit of?” The old man smiles and says, “I plant because the good never dies”. 

As we work towards justice I commend to our faith the belief that while we may never see the fruits of our efforts in this life time or even our children’s children's lifetime, we move the arc of the universe forward but acting and being good. This is why we do teach a moral code here. It’s not the Ten Commandments but its close. (And it’s certainly not the Ten Suggestions as many jest we would have if Moses had been a UU). 

We hold good and right these virtues; honesty, compassion, humility, courage, and the freedom to choose. I can say I would defend those virtues to my death. I hope you would consider that as well. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the human heart” wrote Alexander Solzenitchen, it is right that we believe and act in the good so as to keep the evil as bay."

Happy All Souls Day,  John 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

When Elephants Weep and Dolphins Laugh

Growing up in the woods of the New York’s Hudson Valley, I never spent much time thinking about “nature”. It was just “the woods”, a place to get away from my sometimes sad existence as a rather inward and awkward young boy. I spent countless hours walking through the woods, gladly not yet suburban, and hopping odd streams, swinging at trees with sticks and climbing large rocks. When I did have friends over we would head into the woods, to play fort, army, or Indians. As always our dogs were with us. The Nature was a part of my life, much like cars are for us adults today, an extension of me.  I was Nature, not the same nature as a plant or bird, but of that same Nature.

It hasn’t been that long in the march of history for us to have gotten to a place where we now worship this “thing” called Nature. Our hilltop sanctuary, is revered for its sweeping view of the canyon, the red tailed hawks soaring over head. We have moved in a broad anthropological sense from seeing ourselves as no different from Nature,  Native people’s anywhere, to an exploitation of Nature, bequeathed to us by some biblical injunction, to the necessity of worshipping Nature as if this thing were inert.

I have always been of nature, even now, which is why I need occasional sojourns into the wilds to remind myself of that.  And part of my nature has always been dogs.  I grew up with dogs, two dogs, always two to keep the other company.  Cats too, but mostly dogs.  Dogs are domesticated wolves, and contrary to myth, they are more comfortable in families, than in packs.  In fact, Temple Grandin, a professor of animal behavior and an autistic, points out that most packs of dogs have just created their own families. And dogs not only have an emotional live, they are, I am convinced deeply spiritual.  Animals have souls, as any one of you here today with a pet can tell, but it wasn’t so long ago that Christian Orthodoxy taught they didn’t; after all wasn’t the devil portrayed as half beast?  Think about it, after all dog is god spelled backwards.  Maybe they are gods, laughing at us all the way.  One flea turned to the other on the back of a dog and said, “you know I am beginning to wonder if there really is a dog”.

Mammals and possibly reptiles and other sentient beings have not only emotions but a spiritual center that they teach us from.  Elephants never forget, which is why they are known to weep, dogs inspire us to our better selves, “be the person your dog thinks you are”, dolphins laugh, which is one of the reasons I live here and walk along the ocean, and cats, well, they call us into humble servitude don’t they.  As the author Jeff Masson puts it “Perhaps one central reason for loving dogs is that they take us away from this obsession with ourselves. When our thoughts start to go in circles, and we seem unable to break away, wondering what horrible event the future holds for us, the dog opens a window into the delight of the moment.” (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs)

Temple Grandin in her work, Animals Make Us Human, outlines a fascinating dichotomy that we share with all sentient beings, almost Buddhist in its simplicity.  Animals, including us humans, make meaning from two or three competing emotional states, on one side, such emotions as Fear and Mortality and on the other Curiosity and Play.  We need both the positive and negative to survive.  The negative helps us survive, the positive helps us thrive.  Big game animals that are allowed to roam and explore are vastly healthier than those who are kept confined.  I personally boycott zoos.  I find them cruel and, here’s an ironic word, inhumane.

Animals are so important to us, and not just for food or research.  They actually remind us to be fully human, fully faith full to the project of protecting life and community.  And animals remind us of the sacred power of that common ground between surviving and thriving that we call a community,

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, September 14, 2012

Crossing Borders

There are many kinds of borders we are asked to cross in our lives.  Borders of class, relationships, jobs, cultures, age, and religion to name a few.  In many ways all of us are immigrants crossing borders, if not temporarily, then more subtly.  

I think of my friend Tom, who came from an upper middle class family, his father was quite wealthy.  Tom went on to college fully expecting to work in the family business.  Until his dad died in car crash on his way to visit him.  Tom, whose mother had died years before, now was alone, with a new found wealth which he quickly squandered.  He crossed another border literally when he came to California and tried to rebuild his life after the drugs and the booze.  Married, divorced and finally married again.  He lives a very quiet life as a therapist helping hundreds of people cross the borders of their own lives.
Of all the borders people are challenged to cross, crossing a country’s borders is the most dangerous of all.  Immigrants whether they are documented or undocumented have little if any of the rights that we as citizens take for granted.  No habis corpus, no right to a trial by jury, virtually no appeal.  Documentation only lessens the danger, and of course, undocumented workers face even more troubles.

Every day, thousands of migrants, risking their lives and in terrible conditions, cross borders to reach the land of their dreams. What attracts people to migrate are the lifestyles, the commodities of the rich countries, the ability to earn money to buy things and to escape from poverty.. In the contemporary world, despite the current economic crisis, the lifestyle of people in the rich countries is the prevalent paradigm.
Crossing a physical border into a land where you have nothing in hopes of a better dream is an act of courage.  How many of us, as American Citizens wish we could cross a new border into more meaningful work, safety from economic calamity and the realization of our dreams for our own children now?  How many of you?  I know I do.  We have six kids and all of them face more uncertainty than I ever did.  Is it any wonder those who are worse off than us materially, cross our borders?  Isn’t this a matter of human survival and worth?  Ultimately, isn’t that what we are talking about? As the song goes, We aren't crossing the border, the border is crossing us.
With Grace and Grit, John

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Called to Good Work

Labor Day means something more than just a celebration of organized workers…it is a holiday that celebrates work.  

All of us need to work, no matter what our age.  And as our retirees know all too well, work doesn’t end when you retire.  You may not get paid money for it but you do get paid, and you can live a tremendously busy and fruitful life up until the day you die.  As the Catholic mystic Matthew Fox put it “There is a priesthood of all workers (all who are doing good work are midwives of grace and therefore priests) and this priesthood ought to be honored as sacred and workers should be instructed in spirituality in order to carry on their ministry effectively.” (from The Reinvention of Work, 1995)

When we think of work, we too often think of it as a function – what we do to get “it” done – and so the vocae of our souls are left to chance.  We may or may not find meaning in what we do for money.  The problem of our modern working life has less to do with efficiency and much more to do with the lack of meaning in what we are called to do. Repetition of tasks, whether they be with our hands or with our heads pushing paper and keys from one place to another robs us of the meaning we crave. 

It is never easy to reconcile these contradictions in our lives.  The better paying jobs are more often than not the ones that lie at the edge of what we value as a people.  

Single parents who struggle to raise their families and not quite so able to just give up a well paying job and maintain the environment they want for their children.  

I do believe that money does make a difference in raising a family.  But I am asking us to examine the gap between what we do and what we value.  And just as we should question making money at a job that has little meaning to us, we need to also question making enough money at a job that does have meaning.  It is a tragedy that some of our most socially beneficial vocations pay far below what the people do them need to live on. 

Answering the call to good work, then, is doing what we find meaning in.  “Right work” wrote the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh “is the result of being present in the moment of doing”.  Whatever we are doing becomes meaningful when we pay attention to all that the work means.  The process of working, whether it is paid or not, whether it is your vocation or your occupation, it is a spiritual opportunity. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Swimming Towards The Light

Just before I left our island home to come back to California, my granddaughter Iris, who has a fierce devotion to living things, found an injured frog at the quarry where we swim.  She was on the far side of the quarry, and storm clouds were rolling in.

“Grandpa”, she yelled, “I need you.  This frog is hurt and I can’t swim across with him in my hands.”  

So I dove in and I swam with all my might.  Iris jumped on my back with injured frog in hand and we swam across the quarry as hard as we could.  I could feel my own limbs burning against the water, and her own little heart racing with passion and purpose as she held my neck with one hand and a wounded frog with the other. 

When we reached the other side, rain drops started to fall and everyone clapped.  Either for our passion, the drama or perhaps just for the frog.  The frog found a safe haven and we dried off and I thought of my Dad who had just died, of any of us who go through the storms of life with passion and resolve.  We can do it.  

We were made to do it.

We dream of how the other could change, or perhaps how we might change, but at the end of our lives it won’t matter how many titles we held, how much money we had, what accomplishments we saw.  What will matter is that we went through the storms with only a glimmer of light that tells us to hang on. Just keep swimming. 

With Grace and Grit, John

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Going Through the Storm

We were on our way back East, Frances and I and Madeline and our blind pug, enjoying a glorious day in Yellowstone.  Driving along the glacier lake, I was seized with a sudden urge to go swimming.  “Pull the car over” I asked Frances.  “Where?” she said.  “Anywhere… by the shore.  I… I need to go swimming.”  So she did, a little off the road.  I got down to my skivvies and jumped in the icy cold water.  I thought my heart would stop.  I came crashing to the surface and when my breath came back I yelled as loud as I could “YES!”.  God that water was cold!  I climbed out grabbed my clothes, dressed and we were on our way again.  “Odd decision” my lovely wife said to me.  “Yes” I agreed, “odd”.  Not sure why I felt so compelled to do that.

About an hour later as we neared the end of the lake, my cell phone buzzed,  we had been out of range, it was a message from my brother.: “Call me now”.  We pulled over along the shore.  I had just enough of a signal to get through.  “Dad had a heart attack about an hour ago.  While swimming in the pond.  He’s in a coma.  I need you here.  Now.”  I told him I was on my way.  I would find an airport and fly to home.  As we came out of Yellowstone down the Eastern side of the Rockies into the rolling prairies of Wyoming, I was on the phone for the next hour, finally finding a flight out of Billings, MT two hours to the north that would connect me to the Twin Cities and onto New England.  As we raced through the open prairie, my thoughts raced through a thousand memories, many of them having to do with water.  My father and I share a great love for water, he for the ponds and rivers of New England, me for the mighty oceans we spend our lives near. 

Just then, as we were driving, a storm came upon us.  Not one of those placid storms but a real drencher.  A gully washer as they say.  It rained buckets. Lighting and thunder.  “Should we pull over?” asked Frances.  “No”,  I said, “we have to through it.”  Through the storm, with determination and passion.  I was so glad she and Madeline were with me and with such calm as the storm in my heart raged as much as the skies around us. 

I caught my plane in Billings, and in Minneapolis and then to Hartford.  As I turned on my phone taxing to the gate, there was a message from my brother.  My dad died while I was in the air, above the storm clouds.  He simply slipped away.

As I drove from the airport to the hospital in Northampton, MA I suddenly realized what had happened.  I dove into that glacial lake in Yellowstone at the precise moment that he had a heart attack swimming in pond in Mass.  Our hearts had passed through the storm.  His heart was all done now after 83 rich years.  Mine still beating through the many more storms before me.

With Grace and Grit, John

Monday, June 25, 2012

Standing Up for Love

I arrived late Saturday night  from Phoenix and our General Assembly of Unitarian Universalism, a gathering of the tribe, replete with drumming, dancing, laughter and, this year, more than a few tears.  There are always tears at GA, in part because of the realization of the wounds of our world and the great work we have before us.  It might also be due to the heat this year, where the average temp was well over 100 degrees. Its a dry heat but then so is your oven. I had a small part in the process that chose the site although my advice was anywhere but Phoenix. It was between Long beach, downtown LA and Phoenix, oh, and hell, hell was also on the short list.

This was the year we marched in support of our undocumented sisters and brothers in protest against SB 1070 right up to Sheriff Joe’s tent city door.  It was immensely moving.  Stories abound of the grace of love and strength that came from strangers meeting to protest the human and civil rights abuses the State of AZ visits upon its Latino population.  One of the most moving stories came from ayoung man who had served in the Marine Corps but was jailed unjustly for DWM –Driving while Mexican because of the color of his skin and because he didn’t happen to have his license on him.  What are we to make of those who have been lost by our confusing and painful times?  In some ways I believe our country is in a new cold war of values, between those who sincerely believe that a rule of order and religious values should override the rights of those who look and act differently and those who see the role of government to help others.  It’s still a war and in the end nobody survives intact without all of us picking up the pieces.  Regardless who wins in the election.

As I was walking back to my hotel, I was approached by a homeless man who asked who all these yellow shirted people were.  I told him we were Unitarian Unversalists and we were here to protest SB 1070 and call for the humane treatement of those detained.  He smiled.  He had friends who had been arrested.  It wasn't right he said.  And then he asked me for five dollars.  As I handed him the money, I  thought how much of a difference it makes to show up and stand up for love.

With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Grace. Period.

Amazing Grace is my favorite hymn.  I really can’t tell you why.  It was my mother’s favorite as well.  The tune, the words, have such a stark truth they haunt me.  “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” (although we of course give you a theological choice to change wretch to soul, but that is another sermon for another day). John Newton, the son of a Methodist ship captain who had squandered his fortune as a young man found himself conscripted aboard a slave ship.  Through hard work and because he was white, he won his freedom and made captain, now himself plying the evil trade for many years.  On a return trip to Africa, facing a tremendous storm he prayed for deliverance , with the promise he would give up the trade if saved.  The storm abated and Newton kept his word for the first time in his life.  He married his long lost love and became one of England’s most ardent anti-slavery proponents of his age.  It would take such later activists as William Wilberforce  in parliament to eventually undo the slave trade in England and it took a civil war for it to end here.

The words we sing are altered for UU Sensibilities and are frankly somewhat tame.  Grace will lead us home, sure enough, but the fourth stanza of the original is much stronger “The Lord promised good to me, His words my hope secures, He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

That line gets to the heart of what makes grace so powerful for Christians.  God has promised us a gift, no matter what we are or have done.  We Unitarian Universalists assume that we are not the wretch the song proclaims nor do we need to be saved, we even  have our doubts about God.  But despite this, I still believe Grace is a powerful idea especially now.  The real power of the song and the idea is that we are always given another chance.  And sometimes, when we least expect it or even earn it we are given some gift, if only the breaking of hope when days are dark.

We belittle grace by assuming that only we have control over events.  After all we are a religion of deeds not creeds.  We end our service with the words “now the service truly begins”.  But doing good in the world does not negate grace.  Grace happens.  You need a solution, the phone rings and someone has an idea.  You don’t know how you are going to pay the bills and you receive a bonus, or even a job offer.  You have learned you are dying of cancer but your family heals and comes together because of it.  Grace happens all the time.  Some will call it chance, or serendipity, but I like Grace better.

Sometime grace even comes through suffering.  Many years ago I was invited to lead a service for “Families of Murdered Children”.  The service was outdoors in a park. During the service we would plant a tree.  During the service I noticed a lone man standing at the edge of the park.  The service, very moving, ended and everyone left except for this young family.  I knew their story, they had lost their three year old son to a drunk driver.  This was their first service of this kind and it was very hard for them.  As they stood and turned the mother gasped, staring at the man across the park, her husband’s fists clenched, this was the man who had killed their son.  Slowly the lone man walked towards them, I was trying to play through what I would do if this turned violent.  He stopped about ten feet away. Tears were streaming down his face.  He whispered with as much voice as he could manage.  “I’m sorry”. The silence which followed could have birthed triplets.  The husband put his arm around his wife and nodded and the man turned and left.  The mother broke down.  The whole exchange lasted less than two minutes but changed me forever.  Here I understood what Newton meant when he said, “I once was lost but now am found”.  Not that the killer or the family or anyone was saved, just found.  Found their humanity again.  Found life.  Grace given and received just like that.  Grace. Period.

As the Dutch theologian Henri Nowen observed “Who amongst us doesn’t want to come home?  Who amongst us does want to be forgiven?” Forgiveness is what helps grace along most of all.  John Newton’s father never forgave his son for squandering his future.  God and perhaps even Newton forgave himself for the evil he had done.  More importantly, grace was made real as Newton worked to undo what he had done.  In the period between failing and rising again, grace happens. Sometimes grace lies just inside a new day.  One of my favorite poets W.H. Auden wrote of grace “In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start, in the prison of his day, teach the free man how to praise.”  Amazing and mysterious and as old as time, grace comes unbidden to each and every one of us.  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun.  We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Then when we’d first begun.”

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Faith in the Post Modern Age

I believe that post modernism is destroying us. It has robbed us of the generalist view that allows for cross disciplinary solutions both in fields such as medicine but also in education and even ministry. I am buoyed by recent attempts in universities such as MIT and industries to look at the world in something larger than our little box of concern. In fact, our own Mercury project, a collaboration of three or four committees towards the end of growing our church is most decidedly not post modernism. Protecting our turf is. Post modernism makes us cynical and culturally sterile. After all, what can I do about global warming? Isn't that a national policy problem? What can I say to someone who is suffering from depression? Shouldn't they see a therapist? Yes, they should. BUT WE can still provide hope, faith that they don't travel alone by simply listening. We used to call that cheering up, some call it friendship. WE CAN still plant this garden and march in the streets. WE CAN still write elected leaders. WE CAN in fact, do a lot more. With faith.

And faith is my answer to post modernism. The simply profound and utter belief that WE can make a difference by simply acting, witnessing and doing. I titled this a faith in the post idea age; because I do believe post modetnism has one thing right: most, if not all the great ideas, have already been thought. What we are doing is post idea work, re-working, re-invigorating ideas to make them new and that is tremendously powerful and useful. You do this all the time at work. You hopefully do this with your families; when relationships breakdown, we try to re­invent them building or- the same love which was always there. That is the faith: to believe that old ideas, if they approach wisdom, can be re­done in new ways. Unlike post modernism, OUR faith must embrace not the particularity of relative belief but the meta-narrative of such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Lydia Maria Child, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all Unitarians, who believed that humanity was as a whole basically good and worth saving.

Sure we live in a world of Facebook, internet and twitter. But could we imagjne these as sort of a new front porch? What if there was a way to say, "howdy neighbor, would you like to come in for Some pie and coffee"?   The point is this: we are still people, who can work together, who can think about old ideas in new ways, and who can, with a little faith, solve the most complex problems around us.

With Grace and Grit, John

Saturday, April 7, 2012

When Easter Interupts

The story of Easter, whether Christian or not is a story of suffering and meaning making.  When Jesus died, when any of us die to some part of our life that is no longer, our world is interrupted.  His disciples, his followers, the women who were so much a part of his life were shocked, bereft and lost.  How do we make sense of his suffering, our own suffering, how is it possible to be re-born in this life again?

I think the real answer to that question is how we look at suffering itself.  Suffering in and of itself is never good.  This is what the church had so tragically wrong; there is no redemption in suffering.  But suffering’s interruption can teach. Not always for the sufferer but those of us who respond to that suffering with compassion. “To live the moments we have and not grieve the moments we lack” as the poet Gilbert Friend Jones put it. 

What was reborn wasn’t so much a physical Jesus as a different reason to go on with life in spite of the suffering. When tragedy strikes us, when our life is interrupted, we are forced to come down off the cross of fear, climb out of the tomb of despair and face the new reality

With Grace and Grit, John

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who Was Mary?

As women's history month draws to a close I have been thinking about why there are so many Mary's in the gospels.  Just who were these Marys?

What we do know is that Mary the mother of Jesus, was absolutely devoted to her son and his ministry.  That she herself had knowledge of healings and herbs, and that she was the embodiment of so much Sophia or wisdom, itself an ancient idea that what is truly wise resides in the mystery of the divine feminine.  Think about it: where would a Jewish man get the idea that the first shall be last and the last shall be first?  Where would an itinerant preacher who had no standing on his own, learn to heal the sick and give comfort to the downfallen?  Where would even the messiah, stoop down, write in the sand and answer the angry men who wanted to stone an adulterous to death, “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”.  Where but through the women in his life, starting with his mother?  Not just any mother, but a Jewish mother.

What we do know is that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene most of all.  Although the women in the story are conflated into virgins and harlots, was it Mary who cleaned his feet with her hair and perfume before he was crucified?  Was it Mary who Jesus defended to the male displaces as doing God work and not their constant doubting?  Was it not Mary the Magdalene who the gospels are really referring to and not John, painted as a woman in Da Vinci’s last supper?  And would not a powerful and wealthy woman in her own right have taught her husband to stand up for what he believes in?  While Mary his mother, imparted wisdom and healing, Mary his wife, gave him courage.  Isn’t this the best of the women in our own lives?

What we do know is Jesus and all compassionate men have been taught and cared for by strong and compassionate women; they who embody the goddess.  The goddess is not just for women but for men who can learn from the power of intuition, powerful, if not always predictable emotions, and the courage to stand up for what is right.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Setting the Truth Free

More than one couple has faced the difficult challenge of navigating telling the truth with compassion. Standing before a mirror anyone can say to their mate, “look at me, my waist has grown, my hair is thinning and my arms are flabby” to which the appropriate answer is not “well there is nothing wrong with your eyesight.” It was Gloria Steinem who said, ‘the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off’. True enough. Most of us can’t or perhaps shouldn’t handle the truth in its fierce nakedness. It was Edward Murrow who said:

“Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up at least for a little bit” The question now is and has always been “will the truth set us free?” Gospel of John 8:31.

When Moses came down off that mountain top with the ten commandments and found his people worshiping the golden calf, apostates that they were, he did not argue with them that his new law was better than their old pagan ways. He destroyed the tablets in anger, melted down their idol, forced them to drink the gold, and went back up the mountain to get the truth all over again. It took a while to set the truth free. Will the truth set us free? It depends on which truth.One of our principles as Unitarian Universalists implores us to affirm and promote a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It’s part of our identity as a church, to which we add service, although I was always a bit uncomfortable with being in search of service. Of all of our principles, I find this one the most difficult. Just who is it that decides what truth is? Is truth relative to each of us or is there an absolute truth? How do we even know where to look if truth is located only within our own hearts? Psychologists now agree that the perception of what is true is wired into us, in large part. Those who perceive the world using mostly their right neo-cortex tend to be more optimistic, seeing the good in most of the world, while those who primarily use their left neo-cortex tend to be more anxious. As Milton put echoing the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (see The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathon Haidt)

What will your truth be?

With Grace and Grit,  John

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Loving Choices

A story crossed my desk several weeks ago about a nine year old boy in Memphis TN who lived in his house for over a month with his dead mother. She had died of cancer and the child, not knowing what to do, covered her up, went to school, shopped for food, cooked his meals and slept near her as long as he could. There was no extended family. The boy knew enough to know that the state would put him in foster care. So he made his own choice for as long as it lasted until finally the school figured out what was going on and social services stepped in. There was a time when the African American community would have known about this and would have been there to help (From Barbara Holmes' Race and The Cosmos)

The stark fact of the matter is even without the force of poverty weighing so heavily on people, many of us are forced to make difficult choices at the end of life. Even had this boy’s mother had a family and a community to help decide on his future care, they might not have the financial resources to do much of anything. Our moral choices are rarely between good and evil, but between two evils; in this case, placing the boy in a foster system wherein he will struggle his entire life or with some distant family member that may not want him.

Its no less agonizing for those who have to make decisions regarding children with special needs. Its tempting for those of us not facing the choice to give a child ritlain or place him in an institution to condemn the parents. But we don’t know what its like to live with a child who we can’t take care of because they are too violent. Sometimes the best choice is to let other people or drugs help us survive. Its no less true for those of us near the end of life or helping those near the end of life. When is the right time to place a loved one in skilled care? How can we afford it? Is there an alternative to institutionalizing them and do we have the strength to manage that as a family?
to live with the difficult but nonetheless loving choices we are forced to make. One of the most tragic results of the Nazi holocaust was the guilt survioros of the death camps lived through afterwards. Even in the early post war years in the newly formed State of Isreal, there was a general disdain by other Jews who had not lived through the horror. “Why didn’t you do more to stop the Nazis? Why didn’t you resist?” They called the survivors, “soap”, a horrific insult to the victims of a culture they had no power to stop.

Theologically this is known as theodicy, the blaming of God, or the victims themselves for the horrors we have to face. I wish they would just blame God or the Nazis. But they didn’t. The first point about how to make these hard loving choices is to survive. We here are not facing the same horrific choices, but survival is the primary value, survival of you as the care giver. I have watched entirely too many parents of special needs children and children of special needs elders throw themselves on the pyre of obligation and end up in need of drastic care themselves. Just as I mentioned several weeks ago, the first part of loving is caring for you as the lover. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. Dr. Sharon Welch in her seminal work “The Feminist Ethic of Risk” tells of African American mothers who hid in the bushes with their children as their husbands were being lynched and while they wanted to run out and try to stop it, they knew they had to stay alive for their children. Its not unlike that when you are the caregiver. You owe it to the ones you love to care for yourself. It’s a matter of degree of course but there is value in staying alive.

But the ethic of risk extends beyond ourselves as well. Because the fact is that we do have to make choices. We do have to decide to help those we love even if we feel incrediablly guilty about it. I believe that God lives in the intersection of our relationships with one another. If we have the best intentions at heart and we are caring for ourselves so that we can continue to care for the ones we love, then the choices are easier. So we face the choice concentrically, surviving first and then helping others to survive and realizing that God lives in the love in between. I have come to believe that love is a lot of work. That real love is like praying with your life; constantly deciding what’s right to do, staying true to your own well being while trying to enhance the ones who depend on you. Its the difference between coercion and persuasion. You can rarely coercise someone with love, you have to persuade them that this is the best outcome for all, even when you are racked by the choice you feel you are being forced to make.

I believe that too often we feel we must suffer our of some mis-guided sense of responsibility. But we will get through by sharing the load not isolating ourselves to deal with it alone. This is what I take to be this new ethic of risk. This recession has brought the struggle of these loving choice into focus. And we can, indeed we must respond to these struggles whether personal or collective with the theological conviction that this is survivable and possible to find love in the decisions themselves. After all the fact that we wrestle at all with whether to place some one in skilled care is evidence that love is present. And that is good enough.

With Grace and Grit, John

Monday, February 13, 2012

Occupy Your Heart

L.B. White the famed reporter for the New Yorker once wrote: “I awake torn between saving the world and savoring the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day”. It’s an old struggle: We want to enjoy life but so often we find it difficult to not feel guilty about not doing enough good.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about this tension. Have that cup of Starbucks and then wonder if I just supported a system that exploits child labor. Sign up to spend the day building for Habitat for Humanity even though I could be taking my grandson to the beach. Even in our effort to stand up to the large corporate interests by standing on the corner of Torrance and Hawthorne with the Occupy movement, I was conscious of the fact that most of us were pretty well fed and cared for; people who had savored the world most of their lives.

But perhaps all this middle class angst is a false dichotomy. Is it just a remnant of puritan guilt that makes us worry about enjoying life or saving lives? After all wasn’t it H. L. Mencken's observation that Puritanism is “a terrible, pervasive fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun.”?

And it is there that I want to begin. Because I contend that to save anyone, we have to first start by saving ourselves. This Valentine’s day, I am asking you to first occupy your own heart before galloping off to save the world.

With Grace and Grit,  John