Friday, October 25, 2013

Embracing Risk

“You’re a drunk and a liar” he yelled at me.  For a moment I thought he was going to punch me in the face.  I shut my eyes and turned slightly.  But his anger was enough of a punch for me.  I was definitely awake now although I had no idea what time it was.  My soon to be ex-friend Bob in whose house I was then living was really, really mad.  Not that I though it was any big deal at the time.  I really thought I had turned off the iron, and so what if it fell on the carpet and made a little burn mark.  O.k. a big burn mark.  He had just asked me as I walked away from ironing my shirt whether I had turned the iron off.  “Yeah, yeah” I said.  I was more than a little hung-over.  When Bob smelled the carpet burning he ran over pulled up the iron and yelled something inappropriate for a Sunday morning and then turned on me.

“You had better get it together, here, John, because I am giving you two weeks to get out.  This isn’t working.  You have a lot to deal with and I’m not the one to help you.’  Well, isn’t that just great, I thought to myself.  Some friend you turned out to be.  Down and out on my luck and you turn me out.  Self-pity was also part of repertoire at the time.

Bob, who had just gone through a painful divorce, had actually done me a tremendous favor.  After all, I was the one, at four in the morning while delivering papers had seen his wife’s car parked in front of another man’s house after they had separated.  I had been the one that told him that I didn’t think she was coming back.  And she didn’t.  It almost crushed Bob, but then if his best friend couldn’t tell him, who could?  Bob did the best he knew how.  He cried. He mopped and then he got on with his life.  Soon it was my turn to suffer a break up in that little town in Northwest Iowa.  But unlike Bob, I didn’t do as well.  I cursed and felt sorry for myself when my first wife kicked me out and then, because my other best friend owned a bar in town, I drank.  A lot.  My business was failing and I was falling and Bob was yelling at me three inches from my face.  It was the wake-up call I needed.

He was right.  I was a drunk and a liar.  The first being more a cause of the second.  The drinking was a symptom of a great anger in my life, the greatest of my demons, and the lying which was mostly to myself, kept that demon alive.  This is what Bob, a failing middle age radio station advertising salesman, managed to show me.  Angels come in funny shapes.  He was telling me that it was time to change.  It took me another 20 years to face my anger and embrace a new me but I did.

 This Halloween I want to talk about why embracing risk in our lives is the best way to overcome the demons which haunt us.  I am, as some of you know, an entrepreneur by nature.  I embrace risk naturally.  Which is funny because in real life, I don’t like fast cars, scary movies or amusement rides.  But I do enjoy making change happen.  Sometimes, fatally for me at times, just for the sake of change.  I can become quickly bored if my work is too status quo.  I like big ideas but I depend on others to keep them going.  In some ways, this was the demon that faced me when Bob threw me out of his house 30 years ago.  I had started the first solar energy company in northwest Iowa.  It was a moderate success.  All the more so because I did this when I was 25 years old.  But big ideas take time, money and patience.  And I was short on all three.  So within two years, the risk I had so enthusiastically embraced, started to head south.  My first wife and I grew apart.  Sales start to slump and before long it had all fallen apart.

The first rule in embracing risk is double your anticipated rate of change.  It takes twice as long to make most dreams happen.  Ministry has certainly taught me that.

How do we see first of all that change is necessary and second of all have the courage to change?  Change is necessary when we see our world darkly.  More people begin to contemplate changing their lives over the dark holiday season than any other time of year.  That’s when I finally realized that I was a drunk and a liar.  And I had lost everything, it all started to make sense.  Oh, I am afraid of failure so I keep starting new projects so I can never fail.  Oh, I am afraid of intimacy so I avoid my marriage until it falls apart.  I had to learn to embrace a deeper and more personal risk.  My 23 years as a minister has been learning to  do just that. 

The courage to embrace risk, comes slowly.  But let me say up front that I believe the secret to courage is follow the path laid before you.  This is the essence of Taoist teaching: by following what is before us and choosing to embrace the uncomfortable we change in the right way. I very rarely turn down a request to serve.  This is my way of embracing risk and facing the demons of fear.  When asked to serve, try to serve.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Job of Animals

I have had dogs for my entire life. My father loved dogs, my mother not so much. We took them with us everywhere we went growing up, so much so that slobber on the windows of our cars was how I thought all cars should be. 

As a young boy we had a Shepard mix named Henry. Henry was loyal to the core. When I started going to school in rural upstate New York, Henry’s job was to walk with me the quarter mile down our old road to the bus stop. The road the bus came on was not too busy, and I had been taught to stay back until the bus pulled up. One day while in first grade, while waiting for the bus at the end of the road, I was distracted by two squirrels playing in the trees and I managed to step out a bit into the road. Henry was barking. I thought at the squirrels. I would later learn he was barking at me. He was warning me to get back because he could tell there was a car coming. I wasn’t listening. So he did the only thing he knew how, he pushed me with his body. He saved my life. Unfortunately, the car hit him and he died almost instantly. The driver stopped in shock. He had not seen either me or my dog. He put Henry gently in the trunk and drove me and my dog back up the road to our house. It was one of the most traumatic moments of my life. And I remember it to this day. It may very be why I have dogs today, even though they require so much care. I realized then, that they have a vocation in our lives, and in mine, Henry’s was to protect my life with his.

Domestic animals have long served us and we have not always been kind in return. Whether through breeding or the Creator’s design, animals have a job to do. To feed us, cloth us, guard us or provide loving companionship. It is now well proven that having a pet in your life helps you heal faster and live longer. Many hospitals including our local hospitals here bring animals into patient’s rooms to help with healing. If you go down to the Torrance Memorial Hospital and walk in to the entrance hall from the parking structure you will see portraits of dogs. Those are hospital service dogs; all of them still visiting each week to help us humans know love.

I have tried to live my life by the simple mantra to “be the person your dog thinks you are”. I am not sure I can say that of cats; more likely “be the servant I expect you to be”.

None of what we call civilization would be possible without animals. Long before fossil fuels, animals did the plowing, the pulling, the feeding, the riding, the daily chores of a million, million human souls. Wild animals provide the very ecosystem w which sustains us; from the food chain to the scavengers who create room for more life.

And in return? We have not done well by our cousins. Not well at all. For here is the shifting ground we should consider: It’s not what job animals can do for us but our relationship with animals that matter. After all we ARE animals as well. “The hubris that we are above other animals, denies our own nature” says Kimberly French; from our sexuality to our emotions. "We are more conscious perhaps (after all we are the only animals that is anxious about being alive) but we have a job to do with animals as much as animals do jobs for us. We really aren’t so different." (Kimberly French “Our Animal Contradictions” UU World, Fall 2013)

Blessings be to all animals who we join in the work of the world.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, July 12, 2013

Which Truth Will Set You Free?

The bible proclaims that the “truth will set us free”.  I have always asked “really?” If it does, the question is which truth will actually do the freeing?  The truth that proclaims that Jesus died for your sins and that the only way unto the father is through him, or the truth that in my father’s house there are many mansions, implying there is room for all to be loved by God.  These two and many more are all part of this great spiritual truth of humanity; that our perception of truth and reality is far more important than the so called facts of life.  Reality as an expression of our senses in the world, is often over rated in my opinion.  I have seen far more liberation and solace come from such odd truths as the resurrection than from those who view the world as it really is; a place full of hurt and anger. 

Many years ago I attended a funeral for a young father and his two school age children who had died in a freak car accident.  His wife and mother to her dead children seemed inconsolable at the front of this larger Missionary Baptist Church.  There were over a thousand mourners attending, in the sanctuary and video casting to rooms throughout the building.  Since I was clergy and a good friend of the senior minister,  I sat behind the pulpit and could see the wife and mother in the  front row.  As the service progressed the parishioners were wailing such sorrow as I have never heard before.  But when the preacher began talking about how that little family had been saved in Jesus and how they were going home to God, the mood shifted so dramatically you would have thought someone turned on the lights in a dark room.  The woman’s face brightened her shoulders straightened and within ten minutes, the service went from hell to heaven.  A sense of liberation had come over the people, one truth, the truth many of us here question, set this woman and an entire congregation free.  Don’t tell me that Christianity is nonsense.  It might not make sense to some of us, but it can and does free souls from sorrow, anxiety and pain.

And it can just as easily imprison us as well.  We have had people come to our church deeply wounded from a fundamentalism so severe that they thought they were bound for hell.  At the very least they were bound up in their fears they were going to hell.  In one case, a woman, who had left her husband and the cult church they were part of was shunned by the entire congregation, her only connection to the outside world was our church.  She worked desperately to free herself here among us.  To find a religion that welcomes seekers of truth, not prisoners of truth.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, July 5, 2013

Our Nation's Soul

I have to admit that the fourth of July is not my favorite holiday.  I have never enjoyed loud noises, and now that we live in the heart of a harbor town, the fireworks are all around us.  I must also admit to being ambivalent to the marshal message of our independence day, not the deep and abiding enlightenment principles our country was founded upon – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but rather the bombs bursting through air, and the march of imperial armies through the oil fields of the Middle East. We never seem to move beyond “God Bless America” to “Bless the Whole World”. 

And yet there is something also magical about our country.  On the fourth of July night, we went down to the harbor to watch the fireworks.  One little boy, of Asian Indian descent, was just beside himself with joy.  I don’t know if he had ever seen fireworks before but he was just bursting.  “Wow, look at that, it’s a smiley face”  “Look at the one, it’s a planet, no, two planets”  “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”  “America is great! Look at this!”  “America is the biggest country in the world” he yelled.  His mother must have corrected him “Ok, America is richest country in the world”  Corrected again. “Ok America is a fine country.” America is a fine country.

At its best America embodies ideals not often found in any of us, much less an entire nation. Ideals such as fairness, equality, liberty and hope.  As Jacob Needleman, the philosopher wrote in his work Soul of the Nation “America was once the hope of the world. But what kind of hope? More than the hope of material prosperity, although that was part of it; and more than the promise of equality and liberty, although that, too, was an important part of it. And more than safety and security, precious as these things are. The deeper hope of America was its vision of what humanity is and can become — individually and in community. . . . America was once a great idea, and it is such ideas that move the world, that open the possibility of meaning in human life….It is this goal of bringing people together under the guidance of conscience that lies at the heart of the idea of democracy in its uniquely American form."

Our collective soul- and by soul I mean that inner sense of self that has and discerns meaning in the world – is built on the ideal that we can fashion a future for ourselves; that we are, at least in part, the creators of our own destiny.  This is what lies at the heart of our best selves: the ability to imagine and then act on a better, more fair, more liberal future.  It lies also at the heart of our heritage as fierce individualist who decide what they believe is best, courting so dangerously with prudent values that are critical of any attempt to forestall that freedom.  Here I think conservatives miss the point of individual freedom: it’s not the freedom to do whatever we want, own a gun, ride without a helmet or buy monster sized sugary soft drinks.  Rather it’s the freedom to become what you are: a musician, a business owner, gay, straight, a theist or atheist.  It’s our ideal of freedom, liberation and self-determination that drives us collectively, just as it drove our ancestors.

From whence comes this soul, this interior freedom and service to others? Our founders, whether Christian or Unitarian, believed in a moral order based on the natural order of life.  That natural form of life included for our founders the inalienable right to freedom; a freedom of expression and a freedom to act within the confines of civic safety.  Jefferson’s line in the preamble to the declaration of independence, that these rights include life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, reflects the moral order of our nation:  A right to life, the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (a modification on John Locke’s pursuit of property), and in that order.  And although our economy is severely straining this order, it is still there in principle, if not always in practice.  Needleman makes a salient point about pursuing happiness:  We always assume it’s our happiness, but it could just as well be the happiness of others.

My mother, bless her soul, used to tell me I could be whatever I want to be (except a lawyer, a republican or an Episcopalian), not that I have any issues with those good people, as long as I was happy.  Only later would I realize my happiness was wrapped up in yours. I want all of us to imagine for a moment what this freedom has meant to you.  When were you faced with a life changing moment and had the freedom to change your life’s course?  Was it just your choice or were others involved?

We so often don’t appreciate that our nation’s soul includes the responsibility to give back to our collective good.  We have lost much of that understanding at the national level.  I believe it is still alive and well in the communities but it is harder to find.  Our little dog ran away twice last week.  The first time, she was found by a couple of contractors working on a house down the street.  They had tied her up and, even though she had a collar with our phone number on it, they were intending to take her with them. Finders keepers.  It was only when Frances kept calling and she kept barking that she tracked her down.  Even then these men were reluctant to give her back until Frances paid them a little “reward”.  The next day the dog got out again, this time some neighbors found her and called us.  In the meantime, other neighbors came out and got in their cars and were looking for her.  When we got her back, I tried to offer a reward to our neighbors who had found her but they would have none of it.  “This is what America is about” he told me.  Indeed it is. 

With Grace and Grit,  John

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Necessary Virtues

Blaise Pascal once observed that the truly virtuous are those who recognize both their capacity to be selfish and their capacity to help others and then try to live honestly in the space between them.  But knowing what is right from wrong is only part of our salvation, the more difficult part is to challenge the institutions that keep us from doing the right thing.  It makes a difference if we buy from Wal Mart which openly discriminates against women, it makes a difference if we cheat on our taxes, which, while disagree with our government is the foundation of our democracy; it makes a difference if we give enough to those causes in need which represents our best aspirations.  It makes a difference.  The virtues of courage, honesty, mindfulness, and generosity are not only wise but necessary.

Doing right connects the intimacy of who we are to the ultimate concerns of our lives.  Next year, our church  will once again be participating in Habitat for Humanity.  We have been asked to be part of what Habitat for Humanity is calling an Interfaith Build.  This will be a new home from the ground up.  We will have the chance to go out together on multiple Saturdays next spring and actually join with others and build a house.  Building has always been an exercise in virtue and wisdom for me, if nothing else in the virtuous people you meet.  Once such man I met this year was Norman.
Norman is a young man, late thirties, married with two kids.  He went to USC but has been doing construction for Habitat for many years.  I asked him why he did this work when he clearly could do something else and make a lot more money.  Norman shared with me that as a boy he grew up in Laos Nigeria, his father was an international oil consultant.  He went to school at a Catholic mission school.  One of the nuns taught him a lesson he would never forget:  all around you there are people hungry for work and food, many of the young people will live by stealing. What she said next surprised him: “They can’t do much to change their world, but you can.  You will have the power to help others.  That is the most honest work there is.” Then and there he decided to dedicate his life and his resources to change the world.  A holy man with a hammer.

We won’t save the world, but we can save a little piece of it, and by so doing our world is just a bit more renewed.  Renewal begins with being intentional about doing good.  You don’t have to turn your life over to God as my new friend Norman has done but you can be more intentional about living your values.  Relying on the Good of the world is necessary to put our virtue of love and courage into practice. Respond with courage and hope.  Necessary virtues all.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lessons From My Father

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

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

But despite his distance, he gave me the wisdom of virtues, seen and unseen.  Honesty, optimism, loyalty, hard work, vision and flexibility.  In honor of my father and all fathers, those biological and those who have held the mantle, I offer these lessons to you today for your consideration.

Honesty.  When I was seven years old my best friend, Tommy Walczak and I broke into a neighbor’s house.  It was a summer cottage actually, for at the time, most of those who lived around us were only part time residents.  I don’t remember why we did it but we did.  I remember making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  We thought we covered our tracks but something about the torn screen door gave it away.  Our neighbors, Julius and Lillian Kahn (the founders by the way of Coach Leather, long before it was so high end) pretty much figured it out and came to my dad.  He called me into his study, a wondrous room in the basement, piled high with canyons of paper.  He asked me if I had broken into the house.  He looked me straight in the eye.  I thought about lying but decided that was just stupid.  He knew and I knew he knew.  After I admitted I had, he asked me why.  I don’t remember what I said, and it didn’t matter really.  He decided that I   needed to make amends. And so I had to earn money from him to repair the screen and, worse yet, I had to apologize to the Kahns.  They were so kind about it all.  They tried to look all serious and such but inside they were touched that I had come at all.  Julius reminded me of this story years later before he died. This is what my father taught me: I may be wrong.  I make mistakes.  But I know admitting those mistakes and holding to the truth is far and away the best policy.  As Mark Twain once quipped ‘tell the truth and  you don’t have to remember anything’.

Optimism.  I am prone to occasional bursts of undue fatalism.  Not unlike my dear mother who lived by the proposition that if you think the worst you will either be proven right or pleasantly surprised.  But I get my normal state of optimism from my father.  Until the day he died, my father believed the world could be better than it is.  Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of times when he thought that it was going to hell in a hand basket (a curious alliterative locution, originating in the baskets used to catch decapitated heads).  But more often than not, my father saw himself tilting like Don Quixote himself at windmills.  A quaint reference to a man who dedicated five decades of his life to challenging the abuses of corporations.  On accepting a lifetime achievement award from the people of Bhopal in 1994 for his efforts to bring Union Carbide to justice for the gassing deaths of thousands, he spoke of a new day unfolding in a world where people would come before profits (see

I have inherited this lesson on a smaller scale.  I have spent my career building communities of hope and change.  This is the third church I have sought to lead to a larger vision through hope and optimism.  We have had a few bumps but I contend we are better and stronger now than ever before and we are really only just beginning.

Loyalty.  I am described by those who know me as loyal to a fault.  I learned loyalty from my father.  In 1972, just as Richard Nixon was opening up relations with Red China, a scholar by the name of Jack Chen, who had written a scathing indictment of the communist party, had applied for political asylum in the US.  My father, who knew Dr. Chen from his early days working for the Asia Society, offered him a job as a consultant to the New York State Department of Education, a requirement for asylum.  Despite intense pressure from the Chancellor to fire Dr. Chen, my father held his ground.  He was accused of harboring a communist, called one himself and ultimately resigned his post to begin his full time work as a writer and activist.  I too have supported colleagues who were unpopular and stood beside staff raises often at the expense of my own.  I have turned down other churches because I felt compelled to finish the work I began.  In 22 years of ministry, I have only taken one month of sabbatical.  Ministry is our life and our calling.  When I accepted the call to be your minister I took it very seriously.  In part, this is a statement of my faith, indeed my family’s faith as a seventh generation Unitarian.  Like my father, I am bound by the covenants, the promises, I make, just as we as members of this church are bound by covenant to support the church with our time, talent and treasure.  A covenant, this bond of loyalty, as my colleague Victoria Safford puts it is “a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day.  It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by Grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up.” (see

Hard work.  My father had a hand in building every house he ever lived in.  For him it was a source of pride and a hearkening to his philosophy of the Thoreauan ideal of self-reliance.  I grew up working along his side, not happily mind you, but I did.  I work a sixty hour work week and see ministry as a mission not a job.  I am mission driven.  I don’t count hours or units of time, I count lives changed.

Flexibility.  My father was always late for trains, planes, and boats, sometimes arriving seconds before the door was closing.  He had a very hard time adjusting to a post 9/11 world where so much of your transit time was taken with the theatre of the absurd we call the TSA.  I am not like him when I travel but I am trying.  I am more like my mother who wanted to be there hours before we needed to leave.  When I asked my father why he did this he told me, “there is always another plane”.  It’s a bit of wisdom that.  While inconvenient, there is always another way to get there from here.  My father taught me to experiment with truth, in the words of his hero Mahatma Gandhi.  If one idea fails try another.  This is part and parcel with his lesson to be honest.  I have been known to change my mind about what is the best direction to go as a church.  I have been criticized for that.  But what I have learned, especially in an organization as complex as a church, is that we have to be nimble and willing to change if we are to survive and grow.

Finally, I learned to have and hold a vision.  You may not always get there, in fact, we most often fail, but we need to hold up a vision, for without vision the people perish as it is written in Ecclesiastes. My father had a vision of a world of justice wherein people come before profits.  He had a vision of progress buttressed with deeply held liberal values.  When I asked him why he voted with the Green party or the Liberal Party and not the Democrats he told me that he would be betraying his vision to do so.  Having and holding a vision is matter of principle.

I miss my father very much.  But he lives on in me, my children and their children.  Lesson learned.

Happy Fathers Day,  John

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Living Complete

I grew up in half-finished houses.  In many ways my family lives up to its name: We are the Morehouses, those in more houses, all of them far from complete.  In fact, our home in San Pedro is the most complete home I have ever lived in.   In large part because Frances is a doer and not just a dreamer.  She dreams one day and it’s done the next. 

 But growing up there were always bare studs in some addition, a pile of sheet rock, a box of nails, half-finished foundations, as if to call us on to work until we die.  The fact is we never finished any home I lived in until now.  It seemed to be a badge of honor for my New England family to not finish what they had started.  That sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”  By that standard I grew up around a whole lot of hope.

Our lives will end without being finished. There is wisdom in accepting that we are finite beings living in a finite world, and that is somehow very  freeing.  

This all came home to me when we went to see a financial planner.  She asked me how much longer I planned to work.  “I don’t know, forever?” I answered, “after all a lot of people depend on me”.  She said “Let me re-phrase that.  How much longer do you think you will be able to work?  You are at your working prime right now” she told me, “but twenty years from now, not so much.  What if you get sick?  Or lose your, er, mental capacity?”  Now she was scaring me.  But it was a real moment of theological truth for me.  I wasn’t going to work until I dropped, not that I wouldn’t try, but eventually, I just won’t be able to.  We all have to stop, even my Dad who retired at 80!  We are finite beings and isn’t that really a good thing?

If all I did was try to keep working, and made no room for the next generation, when would my ability to share wisdom cease to be more important  than just being in the way?  Our living is made complete when we step out of the way to let others finish what we have started.  That is what I have learned.  And whatever happens beyond this life now is not for us the living to worry about.  The point is to live and let live and then to steward others behind us to take our place at the hammers and nails of life.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Saturday, May 18, 2013

After Each Storm

We hardly need reminding that life is precious and fragile.  On Friday I attended the funeral for 43 year old man who died from a staph infection.  He left behind his wife and their three little children.  This family had been members of my church before moving away.  It is hard to imagine the grief his wife and children are feeling.  His widow's storm, her grief is so immense that she can only breathe for now.  Still she is surrounded with love and family and friends.  For now it is enough but not by much. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Dave Rickard a UUA consultant  and dear friend who was just with my church two weeks ago, died suddenly.  What is it that gives us the strength and peace of mind to weather such storms as these and those so much greater in our own lives? In three words: Time, Imagination and Friends.

For everything there is a season, turn, turn, and we have turned once again.   Those who do choose to stay through real weather storm seem to be of two kinds.  The first are the young adults too young to appreciate nature’s power.  The second are the older ones who think they have the right stuff.  There are times when it is important to stay through the storm.  When what we gain by the trial is greater than the suffering of it.  All of the great saints endured some storms.  There are times when we need to struggle to the other side.  And there are times, most like this one wherein we have little choice.  Time heals but it also calls us on.  It was Hippocrates, that great Greek philosopher of medicine who wrote, “Healing is a matter of time but it is also an opportunity”.  In every memorial service I conduct I make note of the opportunity this passing has for us the living.  For those of us left after the storm has passed, there is an opportunity to share the same compassion that was shown to us during it all.  It’s more than just making us stronger; it’s about stretching our capacity for love through the tragedy itself.
I must admit that as a younger man I had less understanding of aging and death.  I do now.  I understand and I appreciate what a struggle and blessing time in body can be.  As we become older we fuse with time and trouble, Confusion is really just fusion of a body failing with a mind free to wander and remember.  And in that memory we understand the power of just living, and it is enough. (James Hillman The Force of Character)

It’s very freeing really.  Once we accept the fact that we are going to die we can get on with living in the time we have, storms and all. Here I apply what I call my “theology of persistence.”  As the psychologist Albert Ellis put it so poetically the art of love is largely the art of persistence.”  To understand the place of the Holy in our lives we have to wait until after the storms of life to find the meaning in living.  Meaning is more often found after a storm, at the end of the dark night than before it.  This is why I sign off so often with the paradox of grace and grit; grace for the everyday miracles of being alive, grit for staying alive long enough to make it mean something.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, May 3, 2013

Finding Inner Peace

I am actually by nature anxious about the world. I worry that we won’t have enough to go around.  I worry about my children.  I worry about you all as well.  My entire spiritual practice is built around trying to find and hold peace at the center of my life.  I meditate, I walk, I read, and I breathe, deeply.  I have come a long way.

Recently I heard a story from my colleague Rev. Denis Paul about a boy who was very anxious.  It was his first day in first grade, in a new school.  He had hurried to get to class and had forgotten to go to the bathroom before he left home.  He knew he had to go but he didn’t want to be singled out, so he tried to hold it in.  His new teacher, kind soul that she was, saw him fidget.  Just then, without any warning he could feel his leg warm with the very accident he so wanted to avoid.  He hadn’t been able to hold it in.  He was mortified as the yellow pool gathered under his desk.  He knew he would be the laughing stock of the whole school.  

Just as he was about to raise his hand the teacher, picked up the fish bowl from her desk, walked purposely down the aisle and pretended to trip dropping the fish bowl, water, goldfish and all, at the feet of the boy.  Water went everywhere including onto his lap and all over the floor.  The teacher apologized profusely and other kids went to get towels and helped to clean it up.  Someone saved the gold fish.  And suddenly the boy, went from the potential of deep shame to heroic victim. 

It’s not so far from a scared little kid who has an accident in the first grade to being a community leader if we understand that at the center of life is peace; glory and grace be to that impulse which still beats within us. As Lao Tzu put it so poetically:  “The one with outward courage dares to die; the one with inner courage dares to live.”

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, March 29, 2013

In His Memory: A Easter Meditation

When I searched for Easter at the library, the first three sources listed had to do with bunnies and children’s stories.  Not that those aren’t important. Chocolate and lambs and eggs and bunnies are all ancient symbols of fertility in keeping with the original intent of Easter, the pagan celebration of the earth goddess Ostre whose holiday was appropriated by Christians in the second century. Easter can be confusing.  Some of you remember the little Unitarian girl who was attending a Lutheran pre-school.  The teacher asked her little class what the holiday of Easter was all about.  One little boy raised his hand and “Isn’t that the day we have fireworks?”  “No” replied the teacher “that is the fourth of July.”  Another boy raised his hand “Isn’t Easter when we eat turkey?”  “No” again said the teacher “that is Thanksgiving” Growing more impatient, she heard from two other children, about Christmas and Halloween.  Finally the UU girl raises her hand, “I know” she says “Easter is when Jesus died on the cross, was placed in the tomb, and on the third day the stone was rolled away, and he emerged and if he saw his shadow there would be six more weeks of winter.”

Bunnies and groundhogs aside the Christian meaning of Easter is clear: Jesus has risen! Easter is the primary story in much of the Christian church. This morning, I want you to lay aside your own skepticism as to the factual truth of this event and journey with me into the powerful metaphors it has to offer. The Christian Easter story is a powerful one. The march of Jesus into Jerusalem, the show down at the temple, the last supper, his betrayal, his arrest and his trial are all powerful symbols of our own lives. I ponder the brutal crucifixion and those who stayed by his side (all of the women if you remember), I think of his cry of anguish and the death. I think about the tomb he was laid in, and the huge stone that was placed over the entrance.  After the Passover feast the women went to the tomb to anoint his body only to find the great stone guarding the entrance rolled away and man….dressed in white…and he said unto them “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here…” (Mark 15-16). 

We actually don’t know what happened to Jesus and his body.  Crucifixion was a brutal tool of execution and oppression by the Roman Empire.  Jesus died on the cross, not as atonement for our sins, but for his radical and seditious message that the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the coming Kin-dom of God.  It is highly unlikely that the Roman authorities gave him a trial before the Jews, even more unlikely that his body was laid in empty tomb.  Much more likely, Jesus was dropped into a common grave, in the so called Potter’s field which was occasionally set on fire to dispose of the corpses.  Much more likely is the lament in the Gospel of John by Mary Magdalene, his closest disciple who cried.  “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).  Her anguish, so familiar to so many of us, is the anguish of a world lost in her love for the man who showed such promise.  I can imagine Mary wailing that Proverb of Ashes from the Book of Job to the disciples: “Your words are only proverbs of ashes; nothing but clay.”  A fitting agony in a field of carnage, at the base of a cross which had taken the life of the one she so loved.

So the question becomes this on Easter Sunday:  If Jesus body is lost to history, a proverb of ashes, what did his life mean?  What was truly resurrected in his memory?

I would offer you this:  Jesus embodied the hope that all will be well again.  That suffering will pass and life restored in this or another to come.  I offer you the possibility that we are made new by being together through our struggles towards a new day, a new season, a life yet to be lived.

Happy Easter, John

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jesus Saves

Much of Christianity today is marred with the belief by the general public that Christians only care about whether your soul is going to heaven or going to hell.  The fact of the matter is that many Christians believe in the more welcoming message of Jesus; that those who are suffering will find peace especially if we do our best to bring the world of love into being.  Too often we equate Christianity with the hate filled messages of the Westborough Baptist Church which believes that homosexuality is a sin punishable by hell fire for eternity.  Sadly these misguided adherents picket the funerals of people they don’t even know and proclaim the deceased if gay is going to hell.  That emphasis on the saving nature of Jesus – either you believe and are saved or you don’t and you are dammed – is a much later development in Christianity.  Many, if not most Christians I know, believe in a kinder Jesus, a Jesus that shows compassion and radical acceptance.  Christianity is in the process of recovering this older version of Jesus.  “For many younger Christians the “born again” experience is only a beginning. What follows is a long term process of applying the teaching of Jesus into the here and now” wrote David Kirkpatrick in the NY Times (“The Evangelical Crackup?” 10/28/07)

Still this punitive message of Salvation isn’t without history. 

Jesus and Satan had a discussion as to who is best at writing theology. This goes on for a few hours until they come to an agreement to hold a contest, with God as the judge.

They sit themselves at their computers and begin. After having each read 437 books they are pretty sure of their ability to write their papers. They type furiously for several hours straight. Seconds before the end of the competition, a bolt of lightning strikes, taking out the electricity. Moments later, the power is restored, and God announces that the contest is over.

He asks Satan to show what he has come up with. Satan is visibly upset, and cries, "I have nothing. I lost it all when the power went out." "Very well, then," says God, "let us see if Jesus fared any better."  Jesus opens his word processing program and there is his paper - in all its perfectly sourced glory. Satan is astonished.

He stutters, "B-b-but how? I lost everything, yet Jesus' paper is still there! How did he do it?"

And God replied, "Jesus saves." (thanks to Katie Culbert, for her paper “Jesus Saves” Meadville Lombard Theological School, March 2013)

In fact, Jesus saves is an older understanding of Christianity one brought about from the idea of original sin promulgated by Augustine in the fourth cent.  The earlier message was one of forgiveness and re birth, the lamb and the baptism, the heroic in the face of adversity.  The early churches were small communities held in people’s homes.  The service included a baptism, a cleansing of those who are new, a washing of the feet of the strangers, much like the new pope will do this Thursday in an Italian prison.  The first pope to ever do this.

This kinder Christianity of the first and second century was made real by desperation so many felt at the hands of a brutal empire.  Tax rates for peasants were upwards of 60% of their earnings and harvest.  Rents from the rich extracted the rest.  There was no health care, pension or disability of any kind save what families could do for those in need.

Jesus brought a new message of redemption and with it an early religious movement bent on reversing the social order:  the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was coming to earth, “like the son of man on the clouds of heaven” meaning for everyone.  We too often jump to the later Christian understanding of a harsh and punishing God who sends babies to hell because they have not been washed in the blood of Jesus but the early Christian movement and the Christianity that I believe is being resurrected is very different.  Imagine the poignancy of hundreds of poor Palestinian Jews lining the dusty road into Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna” literally “save us” to a gaunt young man seated on a donkey riding straight faced into the center of the city, eyes set with firm determination to face his death.  His donkey rode across a road of palm leaves (thus today Palm Sunday) a traditional sign of royal honor meant to lessen the dust of the road.  Here was the ‘messiah’ literally the anointed one who would bring forth the kingdom of God on earth.  Its been up to us to bring about this kin-dom ever since.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, February 8, 2013

Better Loving Through Marbles

About a month ago as I was going through some of my father’s papers in an effort to get a handle on his memoir which I promised him I would finish for him, just before he died.  In it I found a picture I must have made for him for father’s day.  Two stick figures playing marbles.  

You see my dad loved to play marbles and he tried valiantly to pass on that love to me.  He gave me bags of marbles over the years, and while I could appreciate their beauty and smoothness I could never quite feel the thrill he did.  Marbles were just not my thing.  But they were his thing and I wanted him to know in my seven year old mind, that I appreciated his love for marbles.  That he saved this picture is remarkable.  This is the folder where he also saved my report cards from the school in India (high marks in English, poor marks in math), newspaper clippings of my various business endeavors, articles I had written, some of my first sermons (which were pretty rough) and this most outlandish proposal I made to him to help me raise $300,000 to build a wind farm in Iowa when I was 26.  Marbles I realized were a symbol of his connection to his own childhood through me, his eldest son.  And that little drawing was my way of saying; I love you, even though we are so different. 

Love and justice. Life and death.  Last week I preached about how we can’t begin to change the world unless we can first find the brilliance in our essential brokenness.  Love is understanding this essential mystery.  Love is first seeing that you are broken and then going on. I realized this as I read through what my father had saved of my life; in it were letters I had written him in love, a few in anger and one or two in deep grief as I struggled with the breakup of my first marriage and the loss of my business.  In other words, his love was seeing – and holding on – to all I was.  That is the meaning of love.

And for my father, as for me, there is a direct connection between that love and the work of saving the world, the work of justice.  As I a young man and a new father, I remember asking my dad why he did what he did; why was it that he was out saving the world anyway?  His answer surprised me: "It’s really quite selfish", he said, "I am doing this to make a better world for you and my grandchildren".  His answer was honest enough despite its incongruity. Dad wasn't exactly a family man.  

Isn’t that what we really want? To leave the world a better place for our children even if they don’t love marbles?  George Dowdell once wrote: “Love without justice is sentimentality, Justice without love is legalism.”

Think about it.  For those of you who have struggled in your relationships (that should be all of you by the way) have learned all too well, Valentine’s day cards and candy are sweet but being respectful of the ones you love, sitting by their side as they are fading, caring for those you know who need you, is what really counts.  That is justice with love.  And that is what marbles represent to me.

We are broken, we are imperfect, but still we try to make the world better with love.  And trying counts.  It really does.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, February 1, 2013

Broken and Called

I met David just two weeks ago in Hawaii where Frances and I were guests of her sister and family.  We had signed up for an All-Terrain Vehicle trip through the rain forest in exchange for listening to a sales pitch to buy a time share.  We had no intention of buying a time share mind you, but this was the dance of comedy we had to make.  The ATVs started off and we were bouncing along merrily in the jungle until we came to a waterfall which was down a steep embankment.  The ATVs were all parked and it was then that I noticed David swing his legs by his hands over the side and pull out two canes from the back. He was barely able to walk. He hobbled down the embankment with the rest of us and some of us (well only two of us, myself and my brother in law Jim) jumped into the ice cold water under the waterfall.  We then dried off and headed back up the hill.  We waited a long time, because David could not climb back up the hill, and was pulling himself up backward on his fanny with his hands.  I had never seen such determination.  When he got to the top we all cheered.

Later over lunch, I introduced myself and asked him what had happened.  “I used to teach Sky Diving” he said, “but my chute opened too late and I broke my back.  I was pronounced a paralyzed from the waist down, a pronouncement I refused to accept.  For the next five years I willed myself to walk again, not like I did of course, but I manage.”  I realized then that the ATV trip was perfect since he only controlled the vehicle with his hands.  “This is my son Garrett” he said, and I introduced myself to a young man of 17.  They were on an adventure together.

He asked me what I did for a living, a loaded question to be certain.  “I am a minister” I said.  “Oh” David replied with a frown, “I don’t believe in God. I am an atheist” he said almost defiantly. “That’s fine” I said “Many members of my church are atheists, for all I know I may be one too. I probably don’t believe in the God you are thinking of either” I replied.  This really threw him for a loop.  He hadn’t expected that kind of answer.

He asked me about my religion and I told him that for most of us, God is not a chess master who causes tragedies like his, but rather a force we work with to make the world a better place.  “Well, I could never believe in a God that what do this to me or in some plan that makes me climb back from the edge like I had to do.  It wasn’t fair or right.  I suppose I am still pretty angry.”

“Perhaps you are God” I said, “perhaps you are own force of will and change is divine” He thought about that for a long time.  “Perhaps” he said, “but why did this happen? It was a freak accident. God is supposed to know these things, isn’t he?” “I don’t know what God knows David.” I said, “But I know you have some fierce power to overcome this injustice to your life.  And that, for me, is God.  And, you are showing the world, your son, most of all yourself that you have the power to go on even when your life has been broken.”

As we said good bye, he gave me his card.  “If you ever want to go Sky diving” he said, “this is my company”.  “You still sky dive?” I asked with amazement, “Only with a partner. But I teach people to sky dive every day.”

Here was a man broken, even angry but sure in his resolve to undo the injustice that life had dealt him.  I don’t know if he feeds the homeless or stands for immigrant rights but I do know that his faith in the power of his own humanity has stood in the face of justice and fought back, despite being broken.  All of us are broken and all of us have the power to reclaim our brilliance as an act of justice making.  All of us live within the paradox of being both broken and called.

With Grace and Grit,  John