Monday, October 24, 2016

Life Goals

I know it has been a long time since I have posted.  Writing has not been easy this past year and I am hoping to ease back into it.  I would also encourage you to check out my About and Consulting pages as I have made some updates.  My plan is to do more regular posting!

The photo below appeared on a friend's Facebook page. I liked it but thought it could use a little refining.  One thing I have learned, particularly over the last year, is that life rules are complicated and paradoxical.  No money alone cannot buy happiness but the lack of it, the scarcity of it, can be destructive.  A long term relationship is not everything and a good one is a very good thing.  All of these needed a bit more, more nuance.

So here is my version and I am sure it may change again.  My re-writing comes from some very hard lessons and some incredibly beautiful and joyful ones.  

1) Make enough money that you can thrive.

2) If you choose to have a partner, know yourself, make sure that partner is your best friend and your lover.  Make sure they love you for who you are that you can love them that way in return. Finally find a person who will stick by you year after year and keep laughing.  If you do not find this person, that is ok because you are enough.  Never settle - it will only make both of you miserable.

3) Collect wonderful memories and some painful ones.  The painful ones will remind you of the hard lessons you have learned along the way.

4) Respect yourself and embrace the recognition that comes from colleagues, friends, family and strangers. Be the best you that you can be.

5) Make your parents proud of who you are by being your best self, and as Richard Bach says "sharing respect and joy in one another's lives."  If your family of origin cannot do that, then create a family of choice that puts respect and joy at the center.  Forgive your parents knowing that most likely they did the best they could.

6) Get as much learning, knowledge and wisdom as you can -  there is always more to know.

7) Pursue a career that utilizes your best skills, never accept work that compromises your ethics and integrity, get out of toxic work environments even if they share your commitment to social justice (justice begins at home); never accept being paid less than you are worth (volunteer your time to those organizations -  jobs are meant to pay you so you can accomplish #1),  Know that you are called unto life not just a job.

So what would be your Life Goals?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Waiting in the Dark

I preached this sermon on Sunday December 27, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock.

Story for All Ages:  If You Are Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens
Reading:  excerpt from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey, Jan. 8 reflection
"Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, "How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?" There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away."

Waiting in the Dark

It is so good to be back here with you all again!  It is always so good to see familiar faces.

When I was a child I was afraid of the dark.  I always slept with a night light and I remember being nervous the night of my first confession because the box was dark and I was worried about being in the dark. Confession boxes when I was young were small dark rooms with a kneeler in front of screen. When it was your turn, you went into the room and knelt down, waited for the screen to open. I realized there was about an inch between the floor and the door and I would be ok. I was ok.  About a year or two later, the confession boxes were renovated.  They installed lights and gave an option to sit down face to face with priest.  How many of us go through times of being afraid of the dark?  How many of us go through times of our lives that are dark and often scary?

The dark can be a scary place.  Things do not look the same in the dark. It is hard to walk because we can’t see all the things we could run into.  If it is both dark and quiet, we hear all the sounds that are normally drowned out.  The shadows and the sounds, can make the dark a very scary place indeed.

Yet it is in the dark that each of us begins.  Life begins in the dark – whether the seeds of plants or an egg. All life begins by waiting, growing and changing in the dark until it is ready to come into the light.  Life requires both darkness and light – it cannot flourish just in the light.

We also have times in our life when we need the darkness, we need that time of rest, renewal and to experience re-birth.  One of my favorite poems is “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte. It begins, “When your eyes are tired the world is tired also. When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you. Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own.”  In the poem the darkness is a place of healing, of renewal.

In our reading from Henry Nowen, he also cautions us against rejecting the darkness. We are cautioned against planning too far ahead, of being so busy planning our lives that we cease to live them.  Nowen reminds us that we only need enough light to take the next step, to trust that there will be enough to take the next one, and that we will continue to get just the light we need to move forward.  In this he says we will be free to live in joy and surprise with less anxiety about what is coming next.  For Nowen when we let go of our fear of the dark and our anxiety about what we don’t know or can’t see then we are free to live fully in the present.

I confess that I do not do this very well.  I want to know where I am going. I want there to be a plan. I want to make a choice and stick with it.  For those of you who are Myers-Briggs knowledgeable I am a J meaning I like plans and closure.  I like structure.  All of this is in stark contrast to being at peace with the dark and letting myself just live fully into the present.  Yet I know there is great truth in Nowen’s words.  We can’t have a five or ten year plan for our lives because we, as frightening as this is, do not have control of all the events.  The last few months have brought this home to me in new and frankly very frightening ways.   I have been in the midst of a time of deep uncertainty and barely knowing where my next step will take me.  Many of the events have been outside of my control and the plans I had made did not work out in the ways I expected leaving me in the proverbial dark most of the time, looking for the light in all the wrong places it seems.

We are not single entities, we are connected beings to one another, to other life, to the planet.  So much of our current politics and culture try to convince us that we just need the perfect plan, or the perfect item, or course, or book or workshop and then we will be in control, able to live the life of our dreams.  Our culture tries to convince us that we can make it on our own, that actually to need others or assistance makes one weak. With everything uncertain and with a very real experience of scarcity, I have had to learn to ask for what my family and I need. I have had to accept that we could not make it on our own and to accept the help of others.

I have been battling the demons of darkness and worry.  While the dark can be a place of healing and renewal, it it is also place where our private demons come to dwell.  They eat away at us with messages of: What if it never gets better?  What if this is your life forever?  Or that You will never be able to make this any different. I am sure many of you can relate to the critical voices that can rise up and become even louder as we walk through these periods of darkness, waiting for the light.  While in the light of speech and acknowledgement, often these messages are exposed for the lies that they are, but in the dark, they seem so true and so very real.

In a culture that stresses individualism, in a political culture feeding on the very worst of our fears, we often believe the lies of isolation.  That the only way to survive is to circle the wagons and trust no one - certainly no one different, no outsiders.  Yet what if the answer actually lies in making the circle wider?  What if it lies in welcoming the stranger? What if the light lives in our coming together? What if the answer to our fears is becoming vulnerable?  Certainly that is one message of the Christmas story.  God humbles God’s self to become a vulnerable defenseless baby born to a poor family, far from home and on the run from those who would do harm.  What if this story tells us that it is in becoming vulnerable that we find light and hope?  What if in sharing our vulnerabilities, in opening ourselves to one another that greater dreams are born?  What if there is so much more than we can imagine? What if the real truth is that we are stronger and can do so much more when we work together, help each other out and recognize the ways we are connected?

That is where sitting in the dark, being still may bring forth a bigger dream than we could do with all our planning.  Sitting in the dark may allow us to leave room for Spirit, for inspiration, for our authentic selves to come out of hiding and show us something that the light could not.  Parker Palmer when talking about the authentic self, the soul, describes it as shy. Our authentic self after having been pushed aside for so long, cannot be chased out. One must wait, one must prove oneself trustworthy, and then the authentic self, which has so long waited, will show itself.  Darkness allows for that. It slows us down.  There is a natural silence and quiet that comes with the dark.  It invites forth what has been hidden.

Yet too often we run. We run from our authentic selves, from our dreams, from being quiet or still for too long.  It can be a frightening thing. What might we find there, in the dark, in the quiet?  As I said earlier, the darkness contains healing and renewal and yet it is often where our demons live as well.

Our  story today offers fanciful remedies to our fears of the dark.  If you are afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow. A night rainbow – what a wonderful image – just sit with that for a moment. What does a night rainbow look like? If night falls, use stars for streetlights.  The writer invites us to imagine new possibilities if our worst fears were to happen.  If you lose the keys throw away the house.  If the moon gets stuck in a tree, fill the hole in the sky with a strawberry. If there is no happy ending, make one out of cookie dough.

Is the dark calling to you? Is it calling to all of us?  Is it time to spend some time in the dark, listening to the silence, watching the shadows?  Are we needing a time of rest, lying fallow until what is next is ready?  What is waiting to born in you? What is waiting to be born in us?  What seeds are you planting?  What seeds can we plant together? Are the seeds just beginning their long journey to becoming a plant or a flower or a wonderful fruit or vegetable?  Are the seeds you planted almost ready to burst the surface and into the light?  What is it you are waiting for in this season of darkness? What are we waiting for?  What might our sharing our vulnerability, our story, opening up authentically, bring forth in us this year?

I invite each of us as 2015 comes to an end, as the season of winter and darkness is just beginning, to take the time to sit in the darkness.  I invite us to wait in the dark and discover what is there waiting for us. I invite us to sit in this darkness together and see what light emerges.  Maybe it is a dream long delayed or one that we could have never imagined.  Maybe it will be a time of rest and renewal; a time to simply step back from the busyness and brightness of the days, to discover the quiet and rest of the dark.  And remember you do not have to sit alone, being vulnerable and scared is easier when we hold the hands of others and just think how much better finding the light will be when it can be shared with those who have witnessed your journey in the darkness.

May we stop our planning for some day and plan just for today. May we look to what is needed today, right now, and may we trust that we will have enough light to take the next step.

Blessed Be!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Lights in the Darkness

I preached this sermon on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Lynchburg.

Story: adapted from  The Christmas Menorahs

Good morning, I am so glad to be with all of you this morning!

Our story this morning is about true events that happened in Billings Montana.

A number of people affiliated with hate groups moved into Billings. They started harassing people of color, Jewish people, anyone who was different than them.  They sent hateful mail. Some of the people in the town felt that the groups should just be ignored, that giving them attention was what they wanted. Others felt it was important to speak up and stop the incidents that were occurring. Those who wanted to respond and stop the mail and the harassment started doing community teach ins where they educated people about what was going on and how to respond.

One night during Hanukkah, some of these people started throwing rocks at the synagogue and into a home with a Menorah in the window.  The rock went through the window of a little boy and landed on his bed.  Fortunately he was not in it.  No one was harmed but the little boy was very scared.

His family, the police chief and a lay woman from one of the Christian congregations all rallied around.  The woman, Margaret MacDonald, remembering a story of a Danish town during World War II, encouraged everyone to put menorahs and pictures of menorahs in their windows.  And the people did.  Shops, homes, all put pictures of menorahs in their windows. The local newspaper ran a full page picture of a menorah that people could cut out and put in their window.

Now the little boy was still scared but he put his menorah back in his window too.  On the night of the Hanukkah service at the synagogue all sorts of people turned out, so many that they could not all fit in the building. Many people stood outside the synagogue ready to protect it and the people inside should it be necessary.

Eventually the hate groups went away, the hate mail and harassment stopped.  All because a town came together and said “Not in Our Town.”

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Lights in the Darkness

Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you this morning!
At this time of shortening days and long nights, we are blessed with an abundance of celebrations of light – Advent, Hanukkah, Solstice.  All of them put at the center the lighting of candles – to remember, to acknowledge and to celebrate both the darkness and the light.

Right now Advent and Hanukkah overlap, as we begin the third week of Advent and the eighth day of Hanukkah.  Both of these holidays have rich stories that have much to say to us in our current context.  Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees victory over the Greeks who had forced the Jewish people to denounce their religion, to worship the Greek Gods and banned all Jewish festivals including Shabbat.  The Greeks had turned the Jewish temple into a temple for Zeus.  The Maccabees refused to follow the Greek laws and waged a rebellion. The first miracle of Hanukkah is that the small group of Maccabees were successful in their revolt against the Greek.  The second miracle is the one we are more familiar with – the oil used for the eternal light – a symbol still in use in Jewish congregations today, lasted for 8 days rather than just the 1 day it should have. The celebration for Hanukkah is found not in the Torah, psalms or other portions of the Hebrew Bible but rather in the Talmud.  It is also associated, as many Jewish holidays are, with specific foods – namely fried food. Latkes or fried potatoes and fried, jelly filled donuts.  Playing the dreidel for chocolate gelt is another fun Hanukkah tradition along with gifts for children.

The Hanukkah story is a celebration of freedom after overcoming one’s oppressors. It is refusing to sacrifice one’s faith and identity to the will of the majority.  It is a reminder that the freedom to worship and believe as one chooses for many has been challenging and a hard won fight.  Even here in a country where we affirm the basic right to worship or not as one chooses we know that we as Americans have not always lived up to assuring that fundamental freedom.  All too often some want freedom of religion to mean only their religion.
Advent does not so much mark the actual event of Jesus’ birth but rather is a season of hopeful anticipation leading to Christmas.  Christmas is actually a 12 day holiday in the Christian calendar that begins on Dec. 25 marking Jesus’ birth.  Advent is a joyful, hope-filled season.  This reading from Isaiah, which in Christianity is interpreted as foretelling the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, in which the people are longing for a Messiah to deliver them, to save them.   The stories of Advent are the foretelling of the coming of the Messiah. A savior that will usher in peace for the Jewish people and the world.  The questions for advent are about what are you waiting and hoping for; for what does your soul yearn.  This season of preparation in the Christian tradition is not about shopping for presents or putting up the tree, rather it is a preparation of the spirit, a time of joyful meditation and reflection of hope; of the light shining in the darkness. Our reading is a crying out of a people in exile and the prophet pleading for comfort for his people.  Many people around the world and in our country are crying out for comfort, for mercy, for relief.  Advent asks how will we respond to their cries.

All of these celebrations are dated around the winter solstice. It may be easy now with our electric lights to forget how dark winter was and how frightening.  There were no crops to harvest, one had to hope that enough had been stored away to last through the cold, long winter.  In fact, in Latin … ‘Solstice means the sun standing still.’ As the days got shorter and there was less and less light, it makes sense that people would want to find ways to remember, to entice and to welcome back the light. After all the solstice marks the turning of the year, after the solstice, once again the days grow longer and while many months of winter remain, the days will be brighter and longer reminding us that spring and summer will once again return.  Solstice celebrations use fire and candles to welcome back the light, huge bonfires were lit in some places.
So what are we yearning for in this season of light and darkness? What seeds are planted deep within in the darkness waiting to take root and burst forth?  What is crying out in our lives and in our world for comfort, for relief, for a light to shine in the darkness?

Recent events, the regular reports of mass shootings, the crisis of Syrian refugees and raging debate about whether or not we welcome them to the United States, the words of a presidential candidate who would create a registry of Muslims with id cards and not allow any Muslims to enter the country. Much like in our story this morning, we are faced with choices about how to respond to the fear and hate being demonstrated in our public discourse.  The number of acts of harassment and violence against Muslims are escalated all over the country.  The current rhetoric has tapped into the fear of the other, provided a scapegoat and even if the policies of targeting Muslims and others never come to pass, they give permission to people to incite violence on their own.
James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, would say that the free liberal church is where we learn to resist oppression. JLA wanted a faith that would be strong enough to resist the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.  For Adams, this begins within ourselves and spreads out.  Adams writes, “We need conversion within ourselves. Only by some such revolution can we be seized by a prophetic power that will enable us to proclaim both the judgment and the love of God. Only by some such conversion can we be possessed by a love that will not let us go.”

So as we face the challenges of our time, will we allow ourselves to be converted by a love that will not let us go?  Will we find the courage to speak both of love and judgement? Will we spread that love to others?   Will we speak words of judgement to those who seek to spread divisiveness and fear?  Will be a faith community that shines light and hope into the darkness?

As we celebrate this season of light, of hope, of lights in the darkness, how can we respond with love, light and hope to the fear and hatred being sown in our culture.  This season of lights calls to us respond with courage and love.

As we reflect on these celebrations of light let us think about what they have to teach us.  Let them call us into a deeper understanding and wisdom. Our third source states that our living tradition draws on “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life” and our fourth source states “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” so what wisdom are we gaining?  How will these traditions inform our own spiritual practice?

So as we read the text from Isaiah of a people crying out for comfort, for deliverance, we ask how are we making a pathway for justice, for peace?  How are we preparing not just our homes, but our hearts this holiday season? How will you celebrate?  What are your most cherished traditions – spiritual and secular? For me I love sitting in the living room with all the lights out except those on the tree; the small lights of the tree illuminating the darkness.  I love our family baking traditions of sugar cookies, fudge and usually a few new items to try.  For me the holidays are about being with my family, welcoming back the light and reflecting on the year that is coming to a close.  I know that yearning for a smooth, clear path as one year closes and another begins. I know that darkness can seem overwhelming and to be searching for that one small light to keep hope burning.  What is it you are hoping for in this season of darkness and light?  What are your favorite traditions?  Will you put up a tree? Light the menorah?  Eat latkes?  What candles are you lighting? How are you honoring the communities and cultures of which you are a part this season.

During this time in the life of our country, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with the violence of mass shootings, the loss of life in some communities at the hands of those who are charged to protect us and the rhetoric of politicians that seem to be tapping into the worst of our citizenry’s fears and prejudices … we can feel a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. However, if we tap into this season’s message of light, love and peace, we may find that we can offer hope in the midst of despair. As individuals, we can speak up in our communities, on social media with a voice that judges what is contrary to our beliefs and offers a vision of hope especially to those who feel outside. As a community, we can support one another in standing for justice, we can offer welcome and sanctuary to those who are being turned away and we can be a beacon of light and comfort in the midst of violence.

As a community we lift up and celebrate the diversity of traditions here – Jewish, Christian, pagan, humanist.  We seek deeper wisdom and understanding. We come together in recognition of our common search for meaning and for truth.  We come together to make justice in the world - work we cannot do alone.  So however you celebrate this December, may it be filled with love, joy and wisdom. As JLA said, may we ‘be seized by a prophetic power” and “possessed by a love that will not let us go” so that we can speak truth to power and offer love and comfort to those who need it most.

May it be so!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

I Will Not Stay Silent!

Now is not the time for silence, or saying it could never happen. Bad things happen when good people don't read the signs of the times.  The signs of our time are very dire and bleak. When a person running for President of the United States can systematically insult, demean and put in grave risk whole groups of people of these United States and the world, then we as good people cannot stay silent.

As many have seen, Donald Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims, even those who are US citizens from entering the United States, in addition to calls for monitoring mosques and ID cards for Muslims.  Certainly Muslims are not the only targets of Trump's anger and violence - people of color, women, people with physical disabilities and immigrants (documented and not) have been targets of Trump.  His message is resonating with a whole group of people, mostly white men who are angry. The anger of this group of white men is not without cause - after all many are working class who see every year that their jobs are vanishing and wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living for decades now.  Our political rhetoric, particularly from the right, blames immigrants, poor people, people of color for their problems rather than an economy that privileges the top 1% over everyone else. Donald Trump is tapping into their anger and frustration and giving them someone to blame when ultimately those like Mr. Trump who are a part of the 1% are cashing in on that anger in a myriad of ways.

Does this blame game sound familiar?  It should, because it is the foundational story of nearly every act of genocide.  Jews were to blame for Germany's problems, Tutsis in Rwanda, Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.  In the United States, we rounded up those of Japanese descent under the guise of national security. Over and over again, after the truth comes out, we are horrified and we pledge "never again." We see the pattern that good people ignored the signs, they didn't think it could happen, not here, surely it is just rhetoric or that they spoke up too late or not at all.

We cannot just sit back and say "Oh No it will never happen here." We must speak up now and over and over again.  We cannot let Trump's words go unchallenged.

This list, which came from Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, a Unitarian Universalist friend and colleague, of things we can do right now to be allies to the Muslim community.

I do not use Nazi analogies lightly, but the leading contender for one party's nomination has suggested we should shut down mosques and close immigration to Muslims. It is time to talk about fascism, religious persecution, and how we stop them.
What did Jews need German non-Jews to do when anti-Semitic demagoguery threatened them?  
Please. Do it now. 
I asked Samina Sundas what we UUs could do to support Muslims in our area and she said, please come to our Eid celebration and sponsor it if you can; I'll be asking the Board to do the latter, and urge you all to do the former. Dan established a relationship with the new mosque on San Antonio so that our middle schoolers could visit for their "Neighboring Faiths" program--we'll be asking them what they need from their non-Muslim neighbors.

Writing to the paper and declaring your support tells anti-Muslim cranks that it's they, not Muslims, who are isolated.

Make a video of yourself saying how you feel and put it on YouTube so that the world knows the people at Trump rallies don't speak for us.

Choose one thing and do it, so that we will not look back on this time and say "Why were the 'good Americans' silent?"

Each of us can do our part and most importantly we can pay attention and take seriously the threats that are being made against whole groups of people. Faith, authentic living, decent humanity demand that this time we don't just look back and say "never again"; if we mean it, then we will speak up and act now to stop this.

During this season of lights, of hope, of celebrating the return of the light after the darkest, longest night, of the oil that burned for eight nights instead of one, may we let our own light shine into these dark corners bringing light, hope and love!

Blessings during this holiday season!  May it be one filled with 
hope, peace and love for each of us and the world!

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Reflection on Job

Recently I posted to Facebook that I felt a little too much like Job at the moment.  It is true, my life
over the last year has been filled with a great deal of pain and loss. It has reminded me of the story of Job, which of course is considered one of the premier texts on suffering and asking the question of why people suffer, particularly on why good people suffer.  I have been feeling however that the story has needed some contemporary updates, because we humans have found all sorts of ways to not actually sit with people in pain but to let them know that in some way they are responsible for all of their own pain and that if they just took these simple steps life would be grand. The assumption of course is that we can avoid pain, loss and suffering and yet that is the biggest lie of all.  Our culture lives in a deep state of denial about loss and death.  Somehow we live in a state of believing that death is optional, that loss is optional, that somehow we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, particularly our children, from bad things happening.  Now not to be a kill joy but that simply is not true.  We will all suffer loss - loss of those we love, loss of dreams, we will fail, we will have bad things happen to us and in my mind we do no service to those suffering or those we try to protect by heaping on a bunch of useless platitudes and spreading the lie that life can be lived without pain or sorrow. In fact, I think we make the pain worse, the suffering more acute when we let people believe that loss and sorrow are optional, that we can avoid them and that if they do happen than they are solely our fault and we are left alone to figure out a way through.

So let us get back to Job.  In a brief re-cap of the Biblical story which is its own book in the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is a righteous man, even making sacrifices on behalf of his wayward children. He has been blessed with a wife, many children, lots of cattle, sheep and good crops.  He is obedient to God, following the law.  In the story Satan, "the accuser," has been wandering the earth and in a gathering of the heavenly beings with God, God holds up Job as a bright shining example of faithfulness. Satan challenges God and says that Job is only so faithful because he has had such a good and easy life. God agrees to let Satan take away all his children and wealth but does not allow him to touch his person. So Job loses everything - children, crops, livestock.  Job however does not renounce or blame God. He remains faithful despite his great loss.  The heavenly gathering gets together again, God once again holds up Job as an example of faithfulness even in the midst of loss, yet Satan again challenges (this is where our term "Devil's Advocate" comes from) and says well yes but he still has health.  God agrees to let Satan test Job again but orders him to spare his life.  So Job becomes covered to head to toe in boils.  Job still does not renounce God instead crying out in suffering and pain, pleading to be allowed to die, wishing he had never been born. His wife, whose suffering is not really dealt with in the story, tells him to renounce God already and die.  Job is then visited by three friends all of whom are convinced that Job must have done something to displease God because otherwise why would all these bad things happen to him, they tell him to be patient, to repent, to examine his life and discover where he went wrong.  Job finds little comfort from his friends' words. Our story ends with God giving little explanation for God's actions and yet Job finds his health, family and wealth restored.

Now let's give a modern twist to the Job story because the questions the story of Job raises are eternal ones - are wealth and health signs of divine favor or making good choices or a result solely of our own achievement?  Why do good people suffer? Are bad things some sort of test of our faithfulness?

Let us reconsider the Job story in this way.  Job is a good guy, he has a great job, house and every material thing he could want.  He has a good wife and family even if sometimes his children act out and don't seem very grateful, Job takes steps to keep his children out of trouble and to smooth their way.  Job's life is good and he is a good man - faithful, loving and grateful!  Suddenly though Job loses his good job and cannot find a new one.  He loses his wealth, he can no longer protect his children so they end up in all sorts of trouble.  Yet even in the midst of this Job remains faithful and a good man, not allowing misfortune to make him bitter and angry.  Then on top of everything else, Job develops a chronic illness.  Now Job is living in daily pain, there seems to be no end to his pain and his suffering.  In the midst of this, Job's wife just cannot take it any more and wonders why he continues to be so faithful, so lacking in bitterness and anger - in anger she strikes out at him.  Job's friends come to see him and they barely recognize him.  They cry out in pain for their friend and for a long while they just sit with him in silence.  Job cries out wondering what has happened to him, wondering why, crying out for relief to his suffering. His first friend venturing speaks, warns him against negative thoughts.  Job's friend reminds him that if he just keeps a positive attitude, not allowing negativity in, that soon all will be well.  Job looks at his friend with a look that says "are you out of your mind?"  What do you mean have no negative thoughts? I have been a faithful and good person, I played by all the rules, I did what was expected and have accepted my fate without bitterness and yet sometimes it is just all too much.  Job's second friend offers that Job's predicament must be a result of something Job did - maybe his illness is because of his diet, an allergy to gluten and if he just tries this great new cleanse and juice diet, Job will soon be feeling better than his old self.  It worked wonders for me, this friend says and I know people have been cured of all sorts of things just by changing their diet.  Again Job looks at the friend with wonder.  A diet that can cure all that ails him? The third friend offers that Job just needs to put himself back out there, job search - there is something out there, the pain can't be that bad, just pull up your bootstraps and get out there.  He just can't sit here and feel sorry for himself.  He just needs to network, brand himself, and in terms of his health, well it is just a matter of mind over matter.  Job insists to his friends that his suffering is not due to his diet or negativity and he can't just put himself out there.  Job cries out for mercy and relief and not to feel so alone in his suffering.  So what happens to Job?  In this version, we don't know. It may be that Job's friends are actually able to help him find a new job, his doctor finally figures out what is wrong with him and is able to offer relief and remission, his children finally find their way back and his family is restored.  It may also be that Job wastes away, his friends leave him and he dies alone.

Probably the most powerful thing Job's friends do for him, before they speak, they sit with him in silence.  In the original story, we are told that they sit in silence for seven days.  For many people suffering, there is nothing that can be done, nothing to be "fixed" and all we can do is sit with our friends as they ride the waves of grief.  It is not comfortable to sit there like that, we want to be able to do, to fix, to act.  Grief however does not have a fix.  As this powerful article attests, some things just have to be carried.

Sometimes though there is practical help that can be offered - networking for a job, passing along a resume or an introduction. There is a reason we bring food when there is illness or death, the thought of cooking or taking care of routine daily tasks is just too much - so bringing a meal or offering to go to the store, paying a bill if the problem is financial are practical, things that friends can do to help.

Most importantly Job's friends were least helpful when they kept insisting that Job's suffering were a result of his own actions or lack of actions. Sometimes that is true, we make mistakes and we suffer the consequences. Yet in the midst of those consequences, is it really helpful to say "well if you just had not....then you wouldn't be in this mess" or "I told you this would happen if you did this and so." Unless you have some magical way to change the past, pointing out a person's failures or mistakes is not usually helpful in moving them forward. Sometimes though things happen - jobs are lost, people get sick, people die, relationships end, dreams end.  When that happens we don't need more positive platitudes about how it will all get better, that somehow God won't give us more than we can bear. In fact to take the story of Job on its face, God doesn't come out looking very good.  Job's suffering is a test of his faithfulness, that maybe we don't have free will and we are just pawns in the great chess game of the universe.  Clearly God gave Job more than anyone could bear that fact that he didn't break may be more about his friends sitting with him in silence for seven days rather than God's care or the friends' advice.

Loss, grief, pain are a part of life along with love, joy, gratitude and happiness.  More often than not, they exist side by side in a paradoxical fashion.  In the midst of great suffering we can smile and laugh, we have better days, an unexpected gift or blessing comes our way at just the right time.  None of us does it alone.  Each of us can help one another even if it is just to look at another and say "I see you and I know you are suffering and you are not alone."

So let's stop with the platitudes and meaning making and be willing to get real, to be messy and to accept that we are not in control. The biggest lesson of Job's story may be the lesson that we are not in charge, we can't control all the events of our lives and we cannot shield ourselves from life.  Also people are fragile, they can break, so please handle with care.

So what does Job's story have to say to you?  What are your thoughts?  How would you make a modern version of Job's story? What have been the most helpful things friends have done for you? What have you done for others?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gratitude in Hard Times - Revisited

Well this is a late Throw-Back Thursday post, making it a Fall Back Friday post!  I hope you all had a blessed Thanksgiving however you spent it.

This sermon from 2014 is still relevant today as so many are struggling in hard times.  I continue my Three Good Things practice and it does continue to help me hold on to hope when things feel very hard and that there is nothing to be thankful for.

As we enter into this season of so much expectation, may we be gentle with ourselves and others who may be suffering in so many ways.  There are those who are grieving, those who are struggling financially, those who live everyday with chronic illness and pain.  May we tone down expectation and focus instead on what is most important to us. May we be able to find gratitude even in the midst of hard times.


PS I am working on a brand new blog post I hope to have ready for Monday morning!

Gratitude in Hard Times

I preached this sermon on Sunday November 9, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story: An adapted excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom - this link takes you to the full passage but I did shorter adapted version
Poem: "Be Thankful" Author Unknown

Gratitude in Hard Times

I know that many of us are struggling this week with hope and gratitude following the elections this week.  Not all of us and some may be pleased with some if not all of the results.  If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication there was a great deal more disappointment than exuberance following Tuesday.  Others of us are struggling with illness or family members with illness, are struggling financially, battle depression, are worried about loved ones who are struggling and all the other things that can make it hard to be grateful.  Around the world there are people living in a poverty we cannot imagine, live in fear of bombs and war, are in prison, are facing death, are alone. Finding things to be grateful for is not always easy. 

In our story from Corrie ten Boom it would be hard to imagine a more dismissal picture…Corrie and Betsy are in a concentration camp, they are starving, they are in a confined space, it is filthy and there are fleas.  They don’t actually talk about being bitten by the fleas but we can imagine that we can add itchy bites to the whole situation. Yet in that situation Betsy tells them to give thanks for the fleas and it turns out it was the fleas that kept the guards from checking too closely on what was going on in the barracks so the Bible remains safe and the reading of it goes on.  Corrie is skeptical as I would imagine most of us would be at giving thanks for the fleas.  Yet what might it mean for us to give thanks for everything, including the challenges in our lives?

I am reminded of Parker Palmer who is an author and educator who also shared in his book Let Your Life Speak about his battle with depression. Parker, over time and it took a long time, came to see his depression as part of his spiritual journey, as leading him to his truth self and true vocation.   In the midst of his journey through depression Parker finally found a therapist who would also treat his depression as part of an inner journey.  In one session, she suggested that rather than see his depression as the hand of a friend pushing him down to the ground where it is safe to stand rather than as an enemy seeking to crush him.  Parker, like Corrie, was at first incredulous at this image.  In time however this image of depression as a friend who pushed him down where it is safe to stand slowly healed him as began to live a more grounded, authentic life.  He could see how fear, ego, and a series of what his life “should” be had led him to living an ungrounded, inauthentic life and his journey down into the depression and facing the demons there led him to a deep healing; to authenticity. 

Not everyone can make that journey; not everyone makes it through.  We can name far too many who do not, many our own family members, friends, celebrities like Robin Williams who finally lose their battle with depression.  It is critical that we not reduce hard times, debilitating times, to Pollyannaish opportunities for silver linings and gratitude.  It takes great strength to see good in the midst of suffering. It should never be a demand, only a possible way forward.  Yes many have shown us that it is possible and we must also acknowledge that hard times do break people, people are fragile, and not everyone comes out stronger – it is not true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It may be true for some and our care, love and prayers are needed for those for whom life is filled with too much grief and suffering.

In my own life I can see things that at the time felt like the end of the world that became pathways to new places.  Like so many others I was once fired from a job and I can honestly say it was a gift.  I was blessed with enough income from unemployment to figure out what to do next and it led to my decision to enter Wesley Theological Seminary.  Being fired removed me from a highly toxic work environment and allowed me to embark on a new direction.  I remember at the time though part of me felt like the world had ended. I was ashamed and embarrassed.  I was relieved. I was scared.  It took time to see it as a gift; as a blessing. 

Lately I have embarked a on new practice, learned from the Science of Happiness class that I have been taking through edX and UC Berkeley.  It is the practice of Three Good Things.  Each night I write down three good things from the day.  For me, even on the hardest days, this practice helps me see the good.  They may be small simple things, like cuddling or playing with our kittens, a delicious meal or a hot shower but remembering that it was not all bad, that there was good in the midst of it all restores hope and gives strength to put the day to rest and begin again the next day.  For me this has been a life giving practice and helped me to deal with some of my current struggles. For others it may be impossible to see even three good things in their day.  I offer it as a practice that I have found helpful and healing.

Part of what is so broken in our American culture and in particular American politics is that we don’t stop to reflect on what is working, on that which we can be grateful for.  How many positive political ads were run that said hey this is really working and I pledge to support policies that will help keep this working or expand it so even more people can have access?  We don’t run our campaigns this way, our campaigns feed on what is broken, what is lacking and then promising to fix it.   This is true of our political system and it is also true of our consumer culture.  Our consumer culture thrives on our sense of scarcity.  It thrives on making us believe that happiness can be purchased and packaged.  It requires us to be always hungry and never satisfied.

Our poem this morning invites us to give thanks for hard things, for opportunities to grow.  It offers a practice, like the Three Good Things, to re-frame the story we tell ourselves. Just like the ten Boom’s their prayers and practice did not change the situation which was horrible and evil, it did however change them.  Finding gratitude in the midst of hard times does not always change the conditions but it can change us, it can give us the opportunity to see a new way through.  It can give us strength to persevere or maybe to let go.

Another troubling aspect to our culture is the assumption that there is a way through or things can be fixed and yet there are some things that cannot be fixed or cured, they can only be accepted.  Death is one of those things.  All of us will die and all of us will lose those we love to death.  There is nothing we can do to change this, we can only accept it.  In the midst of grief, often people will offer words that time will heal and yet that is not always a comfort.  Sometimes in the midst of grief healing is the last thing we want.  I also think it is not true.  Grief does not truly heal, the loss remains.  With time, love helps fill the cracks and crevices. Much like the Japanese art of filling a cracked bowl with gold which I find a more helpful image; the bowl is cracked and remains so but with care and time the cracked places become beautiful.  Those who live with chronic illness, including my wife, struggle to have people understand including medical and other professionals, that there is no healing in the sense we usually think of it.  This is not a cold or the flu where we are sick for a while and then get better.  With chronic illness, terminal illness, what we consider healing has to look different.  It may look like more good days, less pain, sometimes just allowing oneself to be with the pain or may even look like letting go as in the case of Brittany Maynard for whom there was no cure for her brain cancer. Her healing was about accepting that she was dying.  In our death denying, everything can be fixed culture, acceptance and letting go are not easily done.  Yet we can also be grateful in the midst of letting go. We can be grateful that a loved one is no longer suffering; grateful that in the midst of our own pain another’s has ended; grateful for the life lived.  

All of the world’s philosophies and religions seek to make sense of suffering, grief, illness and death.  Each tries to offer a why, to offer a way through.  Gratitude in the midst is one way, one practice we can embrace to make hard times easier, to shift our perspective.  We do not have control of all of the circumstances of our life, we can choose how to respond and the story we choose to tell.  It may take years for us to find gratitude in the midst of hard times, in the midst of grief, illness, death. We can cultivate gratitude as a practice, as a habit that we develop.  We can take to the heart the words of Meister Eckhart “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

May it be enough!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

We Who Are Weary Revisited

I wrote this post in August 2014. I wish I could say that a year plus later that things are better but I can't.  Even in our world, now it is Syrian refugees, those fleeing the very same extremists and terrorists that we do.  Our best response is to open a place for them, not to close down and hide behind our borders thinking that will keep us safe. Think how weary those families are waiting to find a safe place for themselves and their children.  I think these pictures speak to the weariness of these children and their families.

I have struggled to write and post here since my father's death. Grief has a way of making it hard to find words and put them down.  I have many ideas but I am not quite ready to write so please bear with me as I walk through this deep valley of grief and worry.

I still hope that this will be a place to share our stories, to offer hope and support.


We Who Are Weary

"Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest" Matthew 11:28
"My soul is weary with sorrow;  strengthen me according to your word." Psalm 119: 28

I sense a great weariness in our culture that is manifested in fear and scarcity.  It lashes out in anger.  It hunkers down and closes our borders. It cultivates an unhealthy, over the top individualism that is not concerned with the common good.

What is weariness?  Weariness is a tired that goes well beyond being physically tired.  It is a tired that is in your bones, in your heart, in your soul.  It is not new. It is not a recent phenomenon tied to our high rate of inequality or modern living. Ancient people knew about weariness.  There are at least 40 references to being weary in the King James Bible in both the Hebrew and Christian books; anothersite listed 100.  In some cases the writer tells the listeners/reader to not give up, do not grow weary.  In other cases, the writer promises rest and renewal for those who are weary and heavy burdened.  

We don't talk about being weary.  We hide it away, barely acknowledging to ourselves how worn down we actually are.  We somehow believe we are alone, that it is our own fault.  We know others don't want to hear about how weary we are because if I am your friend and I hear you are weary it might call attention to my own pain, my own despair.  We also live in a culture that discourages talking about it.  All the self help books talk about positive thinking, banishing negativity, remaining positive, facing our fear.  Some of that is helpful, a reminder that we have more strength than we might imagine.  On the other hand, it reinforces the belief that if we could just be more positive we would not be so weary.  

I am weary.  I have a wife in pain, in pain everyday and we don't have the financial resources to get her fully diagnosed or even have her on all her medications. I need to earn more income because I am only working half time and I need a full time salary. And I don't even know that I "should" post this post because most people would rather talk about anything other than money, or financial hardship. We are more silent about money than sex. You see in this country if you are anything else other than making it, you are a failure and it is all your fault.  I am not poor, I don't qualify for public assistance. I am a minister, what used to be a solid middle class job, sure clergy complained that they would never make any money doing what they are doing but they did make it. They bought homes, they did take vacations, they had retirement and health care.  They worked full time. Now increasingly salaries are lower, full time jobs are fewer and farther between and student loan debt for those in ministry is sky rocketing.  Yet we don't want to talk about this.  It is too scary for others in similar positions or just a paycheck away from it because if I am struggling, if my family isn't making it then maybe they are only an illness or job loss away from it as well.  We are afraid - afraid of what little we have will vanish. So we are further isolating. We don't talk to each other. We don't join faith communities and when we do, those faith communities all too often offer prosperity gospel or speak not at all to the deep pain and suffering.  As a minister I am not supposed to share how I may be hurting or stressed. Recently, the loss of a colleague has made me re-think how important it may be to open up even when it is scary or others may feel uncomfortable.

I know I am not alone. I think too many people are weary and longing for rest. People are scared and you can hear it on-line, in person.  People are isolating because they are afraid, they are tired and for too long they have been asked to keep going on their own.  Because in our American individualistic culture, you cannot be tired and if you are not making it is your fault. You must not be working hard enough; you must be lazy.

So we yell at immigrant children arriving here alone and scared, fleeing the violence of drug cartels in oppressive regimes that our U.S. government has supported. We have judges and lawmakers seeking to take away affordable health insurance from hard working people.  We have people hurling unspeakable vile at our President because he is a person of color and yet we live in a "post-racial society"... whatever that means.  We have religious folks caring more about who gets to legally marry who than about why our young people are delaying marriage because they can't afford it.  We have religious folk caring more about unborn fetuses and fertilized eggs than living, breathing babies whose parents struggle to feed them, to house them, and then they get blamed for not being more involved at their child's school.  We tend want to scrutinize every purchase of the poor under the guise of helping them become financially stable but when the rich crash our economy all while collecting their multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses, we bale them out without question. Apparently banks are "too big to fail" and yet my family, and thousands, maybe millions of families are expendable. Yet we blame the poor and the undocumented for the state of our economy instead of laying at the feet of the very wealthy who have made life harder and the American dream more elusive for more and more of us. No wonder so many are weary.

Yes I am weary and I long for rest. I long for this peace that Hebrew and Christian scriptures promise us. The promise that we are not alone. The promise we have not been forgotten that there is a love that holds us and will not let us go.  A love that tells us yes we can go one more day, that it will get better. That there is a better place, a promised land and the only way we will get there is together. Yet to get there together we must be willing to speak the truth of our lives. That truth includes our financial truth.  As long as people like me stay silent, make it look like everything is ok then nothing will change. As a white educated woman I am not supposed to be here. I am supposed to be doing ok.  My family and I are not ok and I know that there are many other families out there losing sleep, weary, worried and feeling very much alone.  We don't want to talk about it.  We are not supposed to talk about it as if our silence will make it less real.  Yet Audre Lorde reminds us that "your silence will not protect you."  

So today I break the silence.  Today I tell you I am weary - weary of not having enough, weary of worrying about how to pay the bills, how to keep food on the table, how to help my partner get the health care she needs. Weary of there never being enough money. Even more weary because this situation has gone on for a long time and seems to be all I think about or talk about with close friends. The long lasting weariness zaps my creativity to make change, jeopardizes health even more and shuts down hope. There I have said it.  There I have spoken it.  Will you think less of me now?  Am I less worthy in your eyes because not only do I not have it, I said it out loud?  I have "come out" as struggling financially, of not knowing how my family is supposed to make it. 

I am weary and I know I am not alone. Maybe all of us who are weary need to come together. Maybe we need to start speaking the truth of how weary we are. Maybe we need to stop pretending, stop hiding, stop thinking we are alone.  Maybe your weariness comes from a chronic illness, a child dealing with addiction, a job that is burning you out, a betrayal in your marriage ... or like me, some combination of things. Maybe the most powerful thing we who are weary can do is to stop the hard work of pretending, of staying silent.  Maybe the most powerful thing we can do is speak the truth.

So, I offer an invitation to we who are weary, please share your story.  Please let this be a place where we can break the silence and shame that often surround our weariness. Perhaps, the ministry I wish to be engaged in makes room for being honest about my own life in an effort to allow others to share their stories as they really are. Maybe then we will find the resources, to use the words of James Luther Adams, both human and divine to achieve meaningful change.