Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thanks and No Thanks

What are you not thankful for? Was it the green bean casserole at your thanksgiving table? The uncle who couldn’t stop goading you on about Donald Trump? The evangelical cousin who did quite believe in your secular grace and said another just in case? I have found it very helpful to save some room for what we are not thankful for after thanksgiving; a sort of spiritual purging of the soul. If only we would have said no thanks to the second helping of pie. It is possible to go too far: You all have heard of the man who climbed up to the roof to out wait a storm, he prayed to God to deliver him. Just then a boat came by “jump in” said the owner, “No thanks, I am waiting to be saved by God”. The boat man shrugged and off he went. The water level started coming up the roof, just then a second boat came along and again the same answer.  Finally, a rescue helicopter flew overhead and they shouted out “grab hold of the ladder”. “No thanks” came the reply, “I am waiting for God to save me”. The floor overtook him and he drowned. Upon reaching heaven he asked God “Why didn’t you save me?” to which the Almighty replied “I tried. Apparently two boats and a helicopter weren’t good enough for you.”

So post-thanksgiving we know what we are thankful for but how about what we are not thankful for. I am thankful for the rich bookish world and academic grounding of my heritage, but not so thankful for its cool emotional distance. Others are thankful for wealth, others for love.

But my point here is that your name, like your past represents a part of you and in some way we can all be thankful for what it has given us. I often say that no experience goes unlearned. There are those around us who have suffered enormously. I know of one woman who had been abused by her family, married twice and divorced by the time she was 19. She had had 4 different last names. When I met her she had chosen her own name from a novel and went to the courthouse to make it hers. Despite her hard past she still gave thanks though for the lessons she learned. She is a tremendous human being, kind, caring, a good judge of character and had the life experience to relate to almost anyone. It was as if in choosing her own name and leaving all those other names behind her she had moved on to what her life had taught her and what she was truly thankful for.  Thanks for the lessons of life, she said, but no thanks for those markers to the past that were so painful.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, November 13, 2015

Putting on a Robe of Grace

I have found the time leading up to Thanksgiving to be one of the most reflective times of the year. It’s the time of year to don the robes of grace that have made us, good, bad or indifferent as human beings this past year and look ahead bravely to the future.
Our life is marked by sorrows and joys, but it is largely behind us, and I find it helpful to look back on where the journey has taken us, me and you. 
Those sorrows and joys, those unbidden events are all invitations to accept the grace of God and enter into the next year of your life.  The point is to live into the future, lean into the possibilities that are beyond what has past, and in so doing remember that you are alive.  While my daughter Fiona and her family still lived in Hood River, OR we hiked up a trail head to a waterfall far into the Columbia Gorge. We literally had to scramble up a dam of giant pines, 20 feet tall, and wade through a freezing stream up to our waist to reach this waterfall.  I love water, and so I tore off my jacket and my clothes and down to my shorts stood underneath that mountain water. I was reminded of what Annie Dillard once wrote:
“What does it feel like to be alive?
“Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through time and the beauty and grace of God, reminds you that you are still alive.”  (From Tinker at Pilgrims Creek)
I stepped out of that waterfall and Francis handed me my jacket which I donned as a robe of grace, still warm from her body, for I could only stand under that waterfall for a few minutes.
Living in the presence of life is like this.  Most often we live our lives at the edge of the waterfall. Occasionally, we feel compelled to step in either because someone has a great need, or a death is impending, or life has dealt us an unexpected loss.  Then is when we are most alive.  And when the uprush is done, and we step away from that waterfall again, we feel the glow of grace that is our life.
I am told that child birth is much like this.  A woman is being pounded by pain so intense she can barely hold on and then comes a child, a baby Jesus of her own, and there is a glow unlike any other. We don’t need child birth to be reminded that there is grace waiting to be worn. We need simply look around this time between the years to see what was, acknowledge it and look ahead.
Perhaps the greatest exercise of grace in our lives is when we find the room to accept those who are different than us, whether they are gay, straight, poor, homeless or politically different.  Facing grace is learning to make room for those who not only believe differently than we do but who are radically different than we are.
A surprising statistic has emerged in recent weeks; there is one demographic group which is seeing a rapid increase in mortality. White middle aged men who are not college educated. They are dying at an alarming rate. What are they dying from? Drug and alcohol overdoses, diabetes and heart attacks. But as Steven Williams Mayor of Huntington, WV told NPR, these men are really dying of hopelessness. With so few jobs, men who used to support their families are taken to alcohol and heroin as a way out – and they are dying of overdose and related deaths. In a passionate interview Mayor Williams said, what we need to do is hold on to them, through drug rehabilitation, social services and human contact, we need to hold on and not let go. (adapted Morning Edition, NPR 11/6/15) We need to drape a jacket of love over their shoulders.
 This Thanksgiving, who will you wrap up in a robe of grace? Who will you step up to and offer a drape of love and forgivness?
With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, November 6, 2015

Thanksgiving Grace

“Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead 11 days. His assassination fresh on her mind, Harriet Glickman, a teacher raising three kids in suburban Los Angeles, sat down at her typewriter.

"Dear Mr. Schulz," she wrote, "since the death of Martin Luther King, I've been asking myself what I can do to help change those conditions in our society which led to the assassination and which contribute to the vast sea of misunderstanding, hate, fear and violence."

Mr. Schulz was Charles Schulz. Glickman thought the creator of the popular Peanuts comic strip could play a small part in promoting tolerance and interracial friendship by including a black character in his strip.

She sent off the letter, not expecting a reply.

Schulz did write back, to say he had considered her suggestion. But he worried that if he created such a character, black parents might think he was condescending to their families.

With Schulz's permission, Glickman asked two of her black friends to send him some ideas on how to make a black character relatable. A few weeks later, the cartoonist responded.

"You will be pleased to know that I have taken the first step in doing something about presenting a Negro child in the comic strip during the week of July 29," Schulz said. "I have drawn an episode which I think will please you." (Adapted from Morning Edition 11/6/15)

Just like that, Franklin was born. And on Friday the Peanuts movie opened.  This is a sermon about wearing grace like a garment of light. Harriet Glickman offered her ideas to Charles Schultz as a coat of grace. In this one small corner of the world, she said, won’t you offer some change to relieve the mighty struggle of racism. At first Schulz declined, but then when further encouraged, he accept that grace, that gift of respect and raised a small ladder against the tall white walls of segregation which were all very high.

As you know I write and preach often about grace, the unexpected gifts of life that seem to beckon us on to daring rectitude.  I named my blog facing grace, as well as my upcoming title; because I believe we need to stop excusing this good fortune as good luck, accept it as an unbidden call for a new and better world.  People who use their wealth or good fortune to make the lives of others better are called by a more cynical world foolish.  Generosity is so often mistaken for careless wealth.  And while it is true that some will take advantage of that generosity, far more benefit from it than we realize.

It’s about making room for Grace.  Just grace.   Allowing for grace between the moments of our lives in which we are the takers out of necessity, and when we are the givers because of gifts we did not expect. Grace opens us up to the possibility of change. We practice Grace in so many ways, from comforting a friend, to serving this church, to serving our larger community. We continue our commitment in this coming year to partner with the Beardsley School, Mercy Learning Center and our work with a village in Kenya. But grace is far more than just receiving and giving of our abundance, it is allowing for a large enough heart to recognize those who need love and acceptance. What I have found in this darkest time of the year is that as the contemplative Richard Rohr says “All grace comes precisely from nowhere—from silence and emptiness, if you prefer—which is what makes it grace. It is both you and yet so much greater than you at the same time, which is probably why believers chose both uprushing fountains (John 7:38) and downrushing doves (Matthew3:16) as metaphors for this universal and grounding experience of spiritual encounter. Sometimes it is an uprush and sometimes it is a downrush, but it is always from a silence that is larger than you, surrounds you, and finally names the deeper truth of the full moment that is you.”

I have found the time leading up to Thanksgiving to be one of the most reflective times of the year. It’s the time of year to don the robes of grace that have made us, good, bad or indifferent as human beings this past year and look ahead bravely to the future.

Our life is marked by sorrows and joys, but it is largely behind us, and I find it helpful to look back on where the journey has taken us, me and you. 
With Grace and Grit,  John 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Truth Can Set You Free

Several years ago I met a woman who had been imprisoned within a cult.  She recalls how she and her husband believed that they had been saved by this pastor who persuaded them to give everything they had to the church.  They slept in a communal house.  They would work at jobs but turn most of their income over to the pastor.  They would spend their free time preaching on the beaches.  She started to get sick and she couldn’t understand why.  She started to have nightmares.  Finally, a friend from work convinced her to see a doctor.  It was the doctor who started to figure out that she was imprisoned by this predatory truth.  She told her to leave the church.  But to leave the church would mean she would have to leave her husband.  Finally, she found the strength to do that.  And yet, she was afraid and lonely and hungry for community.  She wandered into my previous church.  She sat in the back.  She left right after the service. I would come up to her and ask how she was but she didn’t want to tell me.  She told me later she was afraid of me.  Not me but pastors who controlled people.  Finally, she told me this story.  We met several times as she worked through the false truth and the only real truth which is that what she believes shouldn’t be coerced, shouldn’t be punishing.  True faith is freeing I told her, we are free to ask questions, to explore, to doubt and to find a community like this one that accepts her as she was. 

Our truth in the open nature of the Spirit, in love and compassion freed her from the truth of sin and damnation and self-loathing.  As my friend Alan Taylor puts it “it’s not so much what your believe but how you live your life that matters.” She was with that UU church for about six months, and then she told me she was moving to be closer to her sister.  She said she would attend a UU church there as well.  We helped to save her life.

What communities such as this one do believe in is the pursuit of truth, with a small “t”.  That is the faith we share and that our new members have joined with us in. Not a belief in the Big T truth, but in the pursuit of that truth that helps you live a better, more generous, and more integrated life.
With Grace and Grit, John

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Out of Many, One

“So you’re a preacher” he said. It was late about 9:30 in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth”. He continued, “Just found Jesus myself” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, he was on this third wife, he had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.
As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me He pulled out a well-worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.

But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off. 

Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. A faith that out of our many paths we will find one faith, one theology, a meaning to which we are that draws us together in more than just a freedom to believe.  Because my friends the freedom to believe is not an end, but a means to an end, still and always in process before us. We come here out of many branching streams to find ourselves in the current of this beloved community bound by covenant to one another.

With Grace and Grit, John

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Promise of Forgiveness

On Oct 2, 2006, Charles Roberts IV, a milk tanker driver, distraught over the death of his infant daughter, pulled up to the West Nickel Mines Amish school house in Southern Lancaster County, walked through the door carrying a semi-automatic pistol and ordered the teachers out and the boys to carry in lumber from his truck before ordering them out. He then ordered the ten girls age 13 to 6 on the floor and barricaded the door. In less than 45 minutes just as the police stormed the schoolhouse Roberts shot all ten girls, killing five and wounding all the others before turning the gun on himself.  The horror of this shooting stunned a nation. The Amish, the most devout of the Anabaptist peace churches seemed the last safe place for children in America. There are no metal detectors, no phones and on that warm fall day the door was wide open.

The grief of such a tragedy effected everyone; the close knit Amish community of Georgetown, PA, the police, the non-Amish, Roberts’s widow, Amy, indeed the entire nation. And yet, within 24 hours, even before the girls had been buried, representatives of the Amish Community came to the Roberts home to express their forgiveness for Roberts. Reports of this forgiveness further stunned the country. Most of us found it the most courageous and powerful testament of faith and humanity they had ever encountered. More than one editor asked how would our lives been changed if George W. Bush had forgiven the hijackers attacks on 9/11.  Others were not so sanguine. Some commentators remarked that it was too soon to forgive such a crime.  That such forgiveness would only excuse evil acts. Some complained that the widow was not the one to receive such forgiveness. Nevertheless, the fact remained that the Amish of southern Lancaster county had forgiven the crime.

To be sure, they had not forgotten the tragedy. They had not forgiven his heinous acts, just the man. And the Amish never asked the families to offer that forgiveness (although every family would later proclaim they did eventually forgive Roberts). The forgiveness was offered by Amish leaders in the name of the church community itself.  And to be sure, it is one thing to forgive a killer who has taken his own life, quite another to forgive a killer who survives.
What the public did not know is that forgiveness is one of the highest virtues of Amish culture. Taken from the Gospel of Matthew, wherein Jesus dying on the cross says “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do” and the sermon on the Mount in which Jesus commands his followers to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In other words, forgiveness for the Amish is rooted, deeply rooted, in their faith. Amish talk of the mortal prison of vengeance and anger but the most compelling reason the Amish make such a cardinal virtue out of forgiveness is quite selfish, as one Amish minister put “How can we be forgiven is we do not forgive?”  the fate of their mortal souls, the Amish believe, is rooted in forgiving those who trespass against them.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as a pardon.  And for the Amish, forgiveness does not mean a criminal should not be punished. In fact, those straying from the order within the Amish community are forgiven but not always pardoned, unless they choose to repent for their transgressions. Nonetheless, I offer this radical form of forgiveness as a beginning to considering the complexity and the promise of forgiveness in our own lives.

While the Amish root their impulse to forgive in a faith in God, I contend that we too might consider such an impulse, not as commanded by scripture, but as compelled by the Unknown God, Spirit, Force, Humanity that dwells within us; the inherent worth in all. We may not forgive the acts of evil but we can forgive the actors.

Our theology points towards the circle of life.  When one part of our circle is damaged, it does no good to commiserate about the damage; this only keeps the circle broken. Finding the strength to deal with these issues as maturely as possible, starting with watching what we say and do, goes along way.  Often times the best thing we can do for ourselves after a painful tragedy is to carry on with the mundane and joyful details of life that remain.  This does not belittle or bury the sorrow but places it where we can work on it best.

Of course, and I want to stress this, forgiveness is not always immediate nor does it entail forgetting.  Women who have been abused may never be able to forgive their abuser, and they should seek and receive justice for the crimes committed against them. But as I have known all too often in my own life, holding hatred keeps us imprisoned, indeed victimized for the rest of our lives.
The 19th century French Poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote “Hatred is the most deadly of poisons; it is made of our blood, our health, our sleep and two-thirds of our love.”
In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hassana has ended and we are just about to welcome Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in preparation for which Jews are commanded to forgive those who have wronged them. Indeed, forgiveness, as complex and heart wrenching as it is, is the only means to atonement,  At- One – Ment with God, with our integrity as human beings.

With Grace and Grit - John