Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: An End of the Year Reflection

So I have blogged more in 2013 than any year since I began in 2010.  I created a much more disciplined practice of posting at least once a week.  As I look over my posts for 2013 I shared a great deal of my spiritual and vocational journey here.  Not shocking that those two labels were the most common.  Since I left my position at the congregation in March I have been seeking and living into what is next for me.

As I start 2014 I begin two new adventures.  I will be serving as the Consulting Minister for the UU Congregation of the Outer Banks and I will be an Adjunct Instructor for the Prince William Sound Community College.  Finally after months of seeking I have two new part time positions that I am excited about.  I will get the chance to stretch my congregationally based ministry skills at UUCOB and my teaching skills teaching Religion and Popular Culture.  In a good way it is both exciting and terrifying. I know that both positions will be pushing me further out of comfort zone while also honing skills I have mastered.

In an interesting way though the search continues.  Both jobs are part-time and time-limited so discernment will continue. I think this is the way we will all have to be thinking about our careers, that we must always be in discernment about whether it continues to be a good fit and if a particular job ends, where will we look for what is next. It is an interesting balance to both deep dive into what is right here, right now while noticing what is on the horizon with the hope that past, present and future will somehow meld into opportunities as yet unseen.

I continue to be inspired by Parker Palmer.  In particular I continue to learn to listen to both where the path opens and where it closes.  It was clear that a path that opened to a new full time job with one organization was closed at least for now and that a path to a more entrepreneurial, portfolio career of putting many part time things together opened.    I am blessed that the part-time opportunities that opened for me were in my field, will stretch me, and replace my take-home pay from my previous full time position.  For so many others, far too many, are forced to put together part-time jobs far from their dreams and from the income they need to survive.

This year has been challenging on so many levels.  There was a great deal of grief from leaving my former position.  There has been the feeling of being lost and searching and not finding much.  There has been financial scarcity and the accompanying stress and fear.  There have been far too many dark nights and I am grateful for the friends who listened and loved me, my spouse and daughter who loved me through them and the help of medication that pulled me out of the darkest corners.  There has also been deep joy.  I have met so many interesting people this year through my networking. I have discovered organizations doing amazing work.  I have developed a deeper love of writing and posting to this blog.  I had the privilege to work with Dave Kaiser, who is an amazing coach!  I had the opportunity to participate in the Choice Center Discovery and Breakthrough weekends where I met 50+ amazing souls, was pushed way outside my comfort zone and found ways to conquer my fear.  I am closer to my sister and her family. I have longed to have a closer relationship with her and it is developing.  I also have been reaching out to my niece who like my daughter is an amazing young woman.  I have been the recipient of amazing generosity from both expected and unexpected places.

So as much as on one level I am ready to kick 2013 out the door, on the other I want to honor the many gifts and blessings of this year.  It was not all bad and it was not all good.  I have been changed profoundly by the events of this year.

My hopes as I go into 2014 is that I find balance and abundance.  That I push myself to read more, learn more, to feed my creative side even more through drawing, through writing.  I want to keep writing and maybe even attempt a book.   Maybe 2014 is the year I actually do the NaNo write. That the new professional opportunities that I am beginning will be fruitful, both for those I will be serving and for me. That as I embark on these new ministries, my professional life will blossom leading to greater and even deeper ministry. My deepest hope for 2014 is for abundance. Yes abundance on a material level, but also spiritual and emotional abundance.  I want to have a deep, full well from which to give and serve others.  My hope for this blog is that it will continue to spread.  That more of you will interact and comment, make suggestions, offer your feedback, share my posts (hint, hint).  Oh, and I certainly look forward to quite a few walks on the beaches in the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina. May you find your own slice of beauty in 2014.

What are your thoughts as we close out 2013?  What were its gifts?  What about challenges? 
 What are your deep hopes for the start of this new year 2014?

May you bring forward the very best of 2013 into the new year and 
may your New Year be filled with the deepest of blessings!

See you next year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Religious and Spiritual Humility

Earlier this year I read this article on When White People Don't Know They're Being White.  The author is a white Christian and she talks about the importance of cultural humility rather than cultural competency. It is a place where people can make mistakes and keep learning.  As I was reflecting on the article, I thought about the need for humility in so many areas of life, but in particular I wanted to talk about Religious and Spiritual humility.

As I read the news, particularly the latest about the Duck Dynasty star's racist and homophobic comments, that seem to boil down to a lack of humility about one's faith and belief.  There seems to be this understanding that in order for my faith, my beliefs to be right, everyone's faith and belief must be like mine. For if I were to allow for the possibility that other faiths, other religions, other cultures, have wisdom, beauty and truth, then mine might be wrong, I might be wrong.  We seem to need to be right, more than we need to be in relationship with one another.

And this is not just a fault of the conservative right, they just seem to have a very noisy voice in our public square.  Yet I have found this same arrogance, this same lack of humility in the liberal religious, spiritual circles that I inhabit.  I have heard and cringed at the comments that express how much more enlightened, welcoming, justice seeking we are than our conservative counterpoints.  Some atheists have claimed reason as their own, dismissing all people of faith and their belief in a force beyond ourselves as unreasonable and bound to believing in six impossible things before breakfast.  I have read articles like this one, that no part of science is based on any kind of faith and that to be a person of science and faith is an anathema.

Some express this arrogance as a desire to reduce all the religion and spirituality down to some simple truths like the Golden Rule.  Yet part of the beauty of the diversity of the world's religions and spiritualities is that they are in fact different. I do think that finding commonalities is an important piece of building tolerance and understanding, yet it is only a first step. This distilling down of diversity to a few simple universal truths, allows me to stay comfortably where I am and not be deeply challenged.  While it may produce a certain level of tolerance on my part, it will never generate deep respect, nor understanding and it is far from love. Spiritual humility calls upon us to accept that we may not have all the answers, that we might be wrong.

In Unitarian Universalist circles, I see two ways this religious arrogance operates.  The first is in the how much more enlightened we are then those in other religions, particularly Christianity. There is still far too much "anything but Christian" among us even as acceptance of theism, the language of reverence and an embrace of ritual has become common in our communities.  Secondly, it is this notion that because in our six sources we embrace the truth of the world's religions, that somehow we are uniquely and best suited to lead interfaith/multi-faith work.  Again, it is not enough to just assume all religions boil down to the same universal truth and just because we embrace all these perspectives does not mean that we are fluent in them all.  Also affirming that there is wisdom and truth to be found in the world's religions does not give us the right to decide to appropriate rituals and holidays of particular religions for our own uses, or that somehow we can bring a reasoned faith to lead multi-faith efforts.

Now this is not to say that UUs cannot do multi-faith work - many UUs do such work every day.  The work they do is grounded and powerful.  Yet anyone who has ever engaged in multi-faith work knows it requires deep humility.  It requires that first I understand myself and my own faith. I have to first know deeply who I am and who I belong to as a person of faith and then I have to listen deeply.  It is humble work. We have to acknowledge that despite our embrace of the world's religions, there is no way we can be deeply competent in the faith, beliefs, practices and customs of all those religions.  We must begin with "we don't know."  From this unknowing, can be the beginning of deep wisdom, deep respect and deep love. When I can accept that openness to other traditions does not equal knowledge or experience of that tradition, then I can begin to walk with another in the work of discovering our unique journeys and traditions ... that requires humility.

Being humble doesn't mean that I have to minimize or reject my own faith, my own sense of the holy, what I know or who I am or that I lack conviction.  Rather humility means that I say "I don't know it all" and that my experience is not everyone's experience. It is really letting go of the need to be right. It is being able to allow for the possibility that another perspective, another faith, another person might also have access to the holy, to beauty, to truth. In the multi-faith work that I continue to do, I am always struck by how much deeper my own faith becomes when I really listen to another's experience of their own faith without trying to translate it into my own experience or immediately dismiss their experience. It is certainly important to acknowledge where our faith leads us to different conclusions, different values but if we do so with humility then perhaps we can stop becoming such threats to each other and find the holy between us.

Spiritual and religious humility, one might say any humility, is sadly lacking. In our need to have good and bad, right and wrong, we seem not be able to hold paradox, to hold that there may be more than one way, more than one good, more than one truth.  Maybe at this point, nature has something to show us, just as we turn the corner to the return of the sun, of more light and the promise of spring and summer, winter begins here in the northern hemisphere.  A deep paradox holds, just as the days begin ever so slowly to get longer, we will experience the cold of winter (well theoretically anyway as I sit writing this in 70+ degree weather). Spring and summer will still feel a long way off as we deal with rain and snow, layers of clothing to stay warm - coats, scarves and gloves.  Yet nature tells us that slowly but surely spring is making its way here. Slowly the sun will come to warm the air.  As we embrace the practice of spiritual humility, let's embrace the paradox of knowing and holding to our own sense of faith, our own experience of the holy while making room for others to hold different beliefs, different experiences.  May we open ourselves to seeking not to know but to understand, respect and love those differences.  May we embrace our unknowingness and learn to live easily with it.

May you and those you hold dear experience blessing during this rich season of holidays!  Blessed Be!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Importance of Gifts

I want you to think of a gift that you have received. This gift should be a material item that someone picked out and purchased for you.  It could have been to mark a birthday or other holiday.  Not an engagement ring - that is different.  This is a gift, you know, with wrapping and everything.  Make it one of the best gifts you have ever received.  Were you a child?  Youth?  Adult?  Who gave it to you?  Why is this gift one of the best you have ever received?

Don't worry I'll still be here once you have that gift in mind.

Okay, now hold onto that feeling and that gift as you read the rest of this.  My spouse, Donna, is one of the best gift-givers I know.  She just has this way of really listening and paying attention to what people around her would like.  Over our nineteen years together she has given me a number of amazing gifts. Some have been practical, like the perfect sweater.  Some have been utterly frivolous like a dozen flowers or earrings that she knew I really wanted.  She buys me the best earrings...not too heavy, perfect colors, just what I like.

This is a tremendous gift and one unfortunately that I don't possess in nearly the quantity I wish I did.  I have had some outstanding moments like when I found the Beatles Rock Band guitar at a price we could afford or the fountain pen I bought her at a time when we had more income.

This time of year, maybe more than any other, shopping and gifts are all around us whether or not we are Christian and whether or not we celebrate Christmas.  Sometimes even those choose not to celebrate are forced into compulsory gift giving - like at their child's school or the office.  I think this is why so many hate the emphasis on shopping and buying this season. For some, gift giving is no longer a freely given expression from the heart but rather an expectation.

There is another phenomenon I have come up against in the last few years particularly in Unitarian Universalist and other progressive circles. It is this disdain of gift giving.  I have sat in a room with people that have said "well we are not exchanging gifts this year and I am so glad.  There is nothing we need."  They say this oblivious to the obvious privilege that statement expresses.  There is nothing I need.  In a world filled with people, most of whom are hidden from sight, that live with less than what they need every day it is only from a place of enormous privilege that one can say "there is nothing I need."  Even worse than that though is this disdain of gift giving or only wanting hand made gifts. What does that say to those who don't have everything they need?  Maybe Christmas is that one time of year when extravagance is permitted.  What about those who do not have the time or inclination for home-made gifts?

I love gifts.  Some of my fondest Christmas season memories are going to the shopping mall with my parents and buying gifts. I loved thinking about the perfect gift for a person. I loved being in the mall, with the people, with all the decorations, the Christmas music. In my family, children always created lists and letters to Santa. I loved this annual ritual.  Well into our teens and even today my family will ask for lists for Christmas.  It is that desire to give the perfect gift. Maybe because my family did do lists and everyone created one, I am not as a creative as my wife in thinking about gifts. In my family, you asked for what you wanted, you didn't always get it, but it was the time of year to ask.

So when I hear this disdainful attitude, this superiority about not shopping, avoiding malls like the plague, it makes me sad and angry.  It seems to me that because they cannot see the joy or the value then it must not have any. In an effort to point out the problems with consumption, we seem disgusted with those who head to the mall during the Christmas holiday or disdain shopping at Walmart and don't understand why anyone would shop there.  It is an attitude that can make Unitarian Universalism not very hospitable place for those not of a certain income and wealth level. We seem to miss that some people only get that little extravagance or that bigger needed item at Christmas and we forget that it may be more expensive to shop at stores more closely aligned to our values ... certainly we should decry consumerism and fight for better practices by retailers but perhaps we need to stop blaming all of those who have to make choices different than our own.

This translates more generally in overall attitudes toward the poor.  We judge their poor choices.  This powerful article  (it is long but worth reading the whole thing) on the story of one homeless teen and her family in New York brings home some of the choices.  This girl doesn't want the moon, she doesn't even dream of big expensive gifts.  Her world is small. She lives in one of the busiest and biggest cities in the world and yet her world exists of the deplorable shelter her family lives in and school. Everything else is possibly dangerous or a place where her status as a "shelter kid" will be discovered.  In her family, getting the monthly check means being treated to ice cream.  Maybe we could all say that there were better uses for that money but who are we to judge. It was a rare treat in a world where the money goes to necessities and often isn't enough to meet those.

One of the labor songs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is "As We Come Marching, Marching."  I first sang this song, which I knew as Bread and Roses, at a monthly feminist ritual at WATER, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual.  The hymn speaks of the need not just for bread, for necessities, but for beauty.  We all need beauty. We want things that are not just practical but beautiful as well.  Isn't that part of the genius of Steve Jobs?  He not only created something practical and amazing that would change the way we work, the way we think about communication, the way we play and the way we connect with one another, he didn't forget it also needed to be beautiful.  At the end of each verse of this song are the lines: "Bread and roses, bread and roses!", too often we think those with less should only want bread and be grateful for whatever casts off they receive and that they should forget about the roses, in fact, sometimes we don't even think they 'deserve' the roses.

As my family and I have struggled financially, this time of year has become difficult and challenging,  Not having money sets you apart.  Your world becomes smaller because after all having lunch with friends or even coffee may represent money you don't have.  Social interactions become challenging out of the fear, that money will be involved.  Also struggling financially comes with shame.  As I wrote before, shame and fear are poor teachers.  Ironically, just when you need all your strength and all your self worth, the shame that can accompany financial struggle sucks it away.  It takes tremendous energy to resist believing the shame, to resist the lies that your self-worth is tied to your credit score or the number in your bank account.

At this time of year, I ache for the joy I found in shopping at the mall, looking for just that perfect item for someone I love.  I love watching my daughter's face on Christmas morning when she opens that perfect gift that she was really hoping for.  For gift giving is not just a gift to the receiver, but rather when we give out of love, it makes us feel amazing.

So I invite you this season that if you are one of those disdainful of the shopping mall and the gift giving, recognize that for some that represents joy and tradition.  Go ahead and buy your gifts free-trade, or make them or shop small, local businesses that give part of their profits to an environmental cause.  Please watch your judgement of those who shop at Walmart or one of the other big commercial stores.  Maybe that is all they can afford or maybe they work there.  Re-discover the joy in giving something utterly frivolous and extravagant!  If you go for practical, make sure it is beautiful too!  People need both! Our souls thirst for it.

I have always loved the memes that suggest that if the three wise persons had been women, they would have brought food and practical gifts.  Yet as I reflect more deeply on it, there is a beauty and meaning in the gifts that are totally impractical (well, okay, I am sure the gold was helpful!).  They were aromatic and exotic. The gifts were an extravagance, unsuited to the humble child of a carpenter but a reminder that even a child born in a barn should be celebrated.

Now are you still thinking about that gift? Was it practical?  Was it beautiful?  How do you feel when you think about it?  That is what gift giving is about.  It is about showing our love in concrete ways.

So I invite to give and receive extravagantly this year!  Enjoy the process of choosing that perfect gift!  If you too are struggling financially this season, remember fear and shame are poor teachers and masters!  My hope is that others will gift you with "bread and roses" and that you can receive deeply without feeling obligation in return. For those of you who do 'have all that you need,' remember to be gracious and joyful in your receiving ... whether it be a baked good or the perfect earring or a box of candy from Walmart ... try looking for the beauty in it if even only in the giver's twinkling eyes. May we all let people give to us, opening ourselves to receive the gift. May we all know the joy of giving "bread and roses."

Let's reclaim the joy of gift giving and receiving!  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Magic Happens Outside Your Comfort Zone

This is the text of a sermon I preached at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013.  The readings for the sermon are "The Pilot" by Gaia Brown and "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" by Adrienne Rich.

It is pleasure to be back with you!  Thank you for your warm welcome to me and to my family.

Lately I have been challenged to go way outside my comfort zone.  It has been wonderfully liberating to break free of the voices that tell me “you will look foolish”  “what will other people think” and just be.  How is it that we come into this world small, vulnerable and yet so open, so trusting, so ready to learn and explore and then somewhere along the lines it gets lost and muddled?

Yet this sermon is not really about why we get lost it is really about what happens when we step out of the comfort zone.  So let’s begin what is the comfort zone. Each of us has our own comfort zone.  For some it may be very narrow and confining, restricting us to a small circle of people and experiences.  For others the zone is wider, includes more people and experiences but still there is a border there, one that once it is crossed discomfort sets in.  Now comfort zones are not all bad.  Typically they are the zone in which we feel competent.  I actually believe that the goal is not to get rid of our comfort zones rather it is to recognize the limits of the comfort zone and when it may benefit us to stretch ourselves, move outside of it.  For example I hate roller coasters and the thought of them is not at all pleasurable.  For some of you, the exact opposite is true.  Now whether or not I ever ride a roller coaster again will not determine the quality of my life or whether or not I can live an authentic life. However when I was a teenager, that fear of roller coasters was an impediment to enjoying being with my peers. It set me apart.  Since I was unwilling to step outside my comfort zone, my fear kept me within it, and I may have missed out on a number of fun activities in my youth. As an adult woman, the urgency of enjoying roller coasters has passed and I am grateful that my daughter loves them!

Yet what if the things we are unwilling to try or explore are bigger than my fear of roller coasters?  What if the things we fear are paths to our authentic self?  What if it is about realizing our deepest held dreams?  What if within that comfort zone we are withholding our gift that will help heal the world?

The comfort zone is not limited to individuals.  Groups and communities and even whole nations have comfort zones.  On this level the stakes are even higher. On the positive side the comfort zone of the group, protects the group and makes it feel secure.  Yet this is also its shadow!  When the group refuses to step out of its comfort zone, it can cease to change, to evolve, to let new in and ultimately that can lead to the extinction of the group.  Sometimes the comfort zone takes priority to such a degree that it will do anything, including acts of violence, to protect it.  This can lead to war, genocide, systemic oppression like Jim Crow Segregation or South African Apartheid.  When the group refuses to allow “the other” in … then the other becomes an object of fear and hatred.

As the poet Adrienne Rich states in her poem, you can choose to go through the door or not go through.  There are no promises.  She even assures us that it is possible “to live worthily, to maintain your position, to die bravely.” Maybe we think “Hey that doesn't sound so bad.  That sounds like a decent life.  I can live with that.”  Then she reminds us “but much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost who knows?”  Ah there is the rub isn't it.  We may not even know the cost we will pay.  Are we willing to live knowing that life inside the comfort zone may not be truly living at all?

See inside the comfort zone our egos and our fears rule the day.  The ego is all about preservation of the status quo.  Now the ego gets a bad rap. It is not all bad. It is like money. It can be a good and helpful servant but it is a terrible master. For the ego uses fear as its ultimate source of control. Now sometimes fear is a good thing. Fear can keep us from taking a dangerous action, it can help us listen to that warning feeling that danger is imminent.  It can keep us from making some foolish, reckless choices. Choosing to step outside the comfort zone doesn't mean taking foolish risks for the sake of taking risks.  Stepping out of the comfort zone is choosing to step forward into the unknown to achieve a bigger goal or purpose.  We do not step outside the comfort zone merely to step outside of it.  In other words, we go through the door to “remember our name, to have things look at us and look back at them and to let things happen.”  It is about what happens after we take the leap, not the leap itself.  So to go back to my roller coaster example, it might be worthwhile for me to ride a roller coaster if in fact I need a harmless way to practice stepping outside my comfort zone, but the reason I may want the practice is so I can take an even bigger risk. So some of the ways I have been stepping outside of my comfort zone lately have been funny, foolish and fun.  Yet I had to overcome my ego which said “what will people think?  This is foolish.”  One example of this is that I participated with a small group in seeing how many hugs we could get in a shopping center … so as a group we offered hugs to shoppers.  It was so much fun!  We brought so many smiles to so many faces.  Yet my comfort zone would never have let me do such a foolish thing.  Yes we looked foolish and people looked at us like we were fools but it didn't matter!  There were so many more smiles and lots and lots of laughter.  It was one of the most fun things I have ever done!

In taking these fun risks, it broke up the fear so I can take bigger risks.  Such a risk may mean reaching out to a new person to talk about a project. Maybe it is standing up here to preach this sermon. Maybe it is saying what needs to be said knowing it will not be popular.  When we learn to step outside the comfort zone we also find joy.  I have to tell you since practicing going outside my comfort zone, I dance with a lot more abandon and freedom. It is fun and other than embarrassing my teenager daughter, a really good thing. Overcoming those fears means I am more connected to myself, more connected to others and more alive.

It is possible to choose to step outside our comfort zone. We can make the choice to live more authentically, to take risks, to be more fully alive.  This recent experience was very much one of those times.  I agreed to take part of a personal development workshop.  Now probably if I had known everything that was going to happen I might have hesitated but trusting my sister and taking the leap worked out.  It can also happen in therapy or on retreat.  For some it can come through reading any number of books. Personally I highly recommend Parker Palmer if you are looking for a place to begin.  In fact the process of learning to step out of our comfort zone is a lifelong one.  It is not one of those things we learn once.

I find however that many of us find ourselves forced out of our comfort zones.   Once forced out we then have a choice to make … is this the worst thing ever and as soon as I can I am getting back into that zone or OK this is not very pleasant, yet look at all that I am learning and experiencing out here. OK so maybe there is something too this whole getting out of the comfort zone.  For many of those we are like The Pilot. We find ourselves in the dark, lost, over a desert, and running out of fuel, and suddenly we are way outside our comfort zone.  How many can relate to those moments?

Nelson Mandela is good example of this.  Forced into the horror of Apartheid and then sentenced to life in prison for fighting against the imposed comfort zone. Let’s face it Apartheid was designed for whites to never have to leave their comfort zone. Mandela could have made some very different choices in response to the imposed circumstances of his life.  When he was finally released, he chose to forgive and to leave bitterness in that cell.  He could have retreated and quietly lived out the rest of his life upon leaving prison. Instead he used the things that had happened to him to lead his nation to freedom and in the process inspire us all.  Yet Mandela did not claim divine-like power, he said this “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”  So we do not honor Mandela by saying “Well there won’t be another Mandela” and go back to our comfort zones. We follow his example by using our circumstances to become leaders of our lives.  That is why we leave the comfort zone.  Hopefully in the process we also do our part to do justice, bring healing and more love to a hurting world.

Probably one of my biggest critiques of Unitarian Universalism is that we love the comfort zone.  I am not the first person to offer this critique.  Henry David Thoreau offered a similar critique in his Harvard Divinity School Address when he talked about “corpse cold Unitarians.”  For Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists the problem with Unitarians was that they were so stuck in their heads that they could not feel, they did not live, they were emotionless.  Too often we Unitarian Universalists fear depth of emotion, embodiment, and passion.  We are very rational.  We want things to make sense.  On the one hand that is a tremendous gift. Yet human beings are also feeling, passionate, embodied beings.  As James Luther Adams reminded us human beings are not simply rational creatures.  I would say “Thank Goodness” we are not just rational creatures. Life is about so much more than our rationality!  Yet we UUs really like to stay in our heady comfort zone.

For a faith community to not merely survive but to thrive, especially today, it must be willing to step out of its comfort zone.  We must be willing to take risks not knowing if they will succeed or fail.  Stepping out of our comfort zone means we are going to get it wrong sometimes. We may end up looking foolish.  For a heady group of perfectionists, this is terrifying. I don’t want to make light of that very real fear.  Yet as Nelson Mandela reminds us, it is not about getting rid of the fear. It is about conquering the fear.  It is about not letting it rule the day.  I believe our congregations have a saving message for the world, yet we can only offer our message by stepping outside of our comfort zone, conquering fear and yes having faith that in doing so we can transform the world.

All of you here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks are standing in front of a door. You are standing at a moment of transition and you will have choices to make about how you will go forward.  Transitions are perfect moments for stepping out of our comfort zone. The choice, however, rests with you.  Will you risk trying new things?  What is the larger vision that is worth the risk?  Who do you see yourselves becoming and is the vision large enough?  Again you are asked as a community, will you walk through the door or won’t you?  Will you step outside the comfort zone or not?

Conquering our fear, making our comfort zone a servant and not a master, risking failure, risking success beyond our wildest dreams - that is the magic outside our comfort zone.  Deep within, our authentic selves know this.  We know this to be true and yet the challenge remains “Will we walk through the door or will we not” and are we willing to walk through it again and again.  For the choice to live authentically, the choice to live is one that we will be asked to answer again and again.  I will close with these words from Nelson Mandela:  “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sabbath: The Exhale of Creation

Well I thought I had posted this sermon before but apparently I didn't. This sermon was preached on Sunday November 3, 2013 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  The texts for the sermon are an except from Wayne Moyer's book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and the story "No Lists on the Sabbath" by Rabbi Marc Gellman.

As always I welcome your thoughts and comments!

Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you this morning.  Thank you for your warm welcome to me and my family.  I look forward to getting to know you better.

For a number of years now I have been reflecting on and exploring Sabbath and the development of my own Sabbath practice.  I have been thinking about it because the work of ministry includes working on weekends – traditionally days of rest from work. Since I have been job searching and living into working for myself rather than a specific congregation – I am finding it takes greater discipline to rest. I am coming to love this new model of work.  Yet I also know that I can be seduced by just doing one more thing, checking e-mail one more time, and it takes a truly conscience effort on my part to unplug, to set down the work, to stop.

I am also concerned about the state of our world, particularly families with children.  I see families pushed and pulled in all directions, two parents working, school, homework, extracurricular activities, and no time just to be, just to be together and enjoy each other.  I also get concerned because it seems that spiritual practice and a spiritual life becomes one more item on the very long to-do list and all too frequently it is the one that can fall off.

I am not alone in my concern.  Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, views our lack of rest, or constant “doingness” as a form of violence.  It is a way that we use up resources –  our own, other people’s (including those we love), the earth – and do so unconsciously because we are moving too fast to savor, enjoy, appreciate, notice.  Muller states:  “If busyness can become a form of violence, we do not have to stretch our perception very far to see that Sabbath time—effortless, nourishing rest—can invite a healing of this violence.”  (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 5) By taking the time to rest, we both refresh ourselves and remember the joy of work.

We have traded rest, time off, for more money and things.  For those in the business of transforming the world, the need is so great and seems to be growing.  Theirs may not be a quest for money and things but the urgency of the need makes it difficult to stop for there is always more work to be done.  All of us need to stop. Yet everything in the culture around us screams to keep going, keep buying, keep working, stay connected 24-7, whatever you do, do not stop, do not step back.  

Sabbath calls us to stop.  Just to stop.  It does not require elaborate tools or objects.  Our consumerist culture tries to tell us if we just have this coffee maker, or this couch or this bed, we will suddenly have the rest we are longing for and that our souls cry out for.  Yet the consumer culture lies.  Muller writes:
“Sabbath is a time to stop, to refrain from being seduced by our desires. To stop working, stop making money, stop spending money.  See what you have.  Look around.  Listen to your life.  Do you really need more than this?  That is, after all, what they are selling in the picture: people who have stopped.  You cannot buy stopped.  You simply have to stop.” (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 137)

Muller argues that catalogs and commercials sell us Sabbath.  They are selling the promise of rest but they cannot truly provide it.  I invite you to look around, to study commercials, ads and notice how they try to sell Sabbath.  With the holidays  approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to see how the culture tries to sell us the rest, community and the peace so many are longing for.

Sabbath is about marking time as sacred--to set it apart.  In his book, A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom and Joy on the Sabbath, Christopher Ringwald writes “On that seventh day, God ends Creation.  He ceases and He divides this one day from the others by marking it as holy.  After blessings things that He has created over six days, God now blesses time, the seventh day.” (A Day Apart, p. 36)  A blessing of time, the Sabbath is about entering into Divine time, a holy time…a time set apart.

Sabbath is linked to creation in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is not just linked in Genesis as we heard in the story, it is repeated throughout the scriptures.  For example, in Exodus, “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.”  Muller explains, ”refreshed…literally means God exhaled..  The creation of the world was like the life-quickening inhale; the Sabbath is the exhale.  Without the Sabbath exhale, the life-giving inhale is impossible.”  (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 36)

Our bodies know this sacred rhythm; nature knows it.  We see it everywhere when we pay attention, in music there must be a rest, a silence, a pause.  When one watches young children or pets, when they get tired or sick, they stop, they rest.  They don’t say I’ll go fetch the ball one more time or play one more game, they stop.  They exhale so that they can resume the inhale.  Too often, adults only learn it when their bodies simply won’t let them keep doing.  How many people only learn to rest, to take a break, when their bodies finally break down and force them to stop?  If we don’t chose to make time to rest, then our bodies will make the choice for us and I know that our bodies will not consult our calendars and to-do lists when they do so.

Jews have practiced Sabbath for thousands of years and I think have much to teach us all about it.   It is a challenging practice.   It is a practice of what is forbidden…work, kindling fire, carrying items – which in our contemporary times can include turning on lights, driving, cleaning, planting , weeding etc.  As the story tells us, there are no lists on the Sabbath.  The lists are put away, not because the work is done, but because it is Sabbath.

Sabbath is not convenient in the way we have come to think of it.  Sabbath in the Jewish tradition requires preparation and planning.  Yet in addition to all that is prohibited and restricted, there is an invitation to enjoy a specially prepared Sabbath meal, a nap, prayer, time with family and friends, lovemaking, and play.  It is a freedom from menial labor.  It is a day of blessing and thanksgiving.

In the Jewish Shabbat service on Friday evenings, Sabbath is welcomed in as a Bride with joy and celebration.  It is not dreaded as a list of what is prohibited (remember no lists on the Sabbath) but rather joyfully welcomed.  Candles are lit. Children are blessed.  Juice or wine and Challah bread is consumed.  It is both an individual family and communal practice.

Sabbath is sensual and connects with the earth.  We connect with our bodies and other bodies—through conversation, through touch, through really seeing each other and the world.  Sabbath is about being truly present to ourselves and to each other. Muller states “At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest.” (Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, p. 183)

Sabbath is both personal and communal.  When we come together here in worship we are reminded that work and the tasks of day to day living are not all there is.  Here we sing, we have time in silence, we hear readings and hopefully we receive something here that we can take out into the world.  We are called to go deeper, to seek the holy, the sacred.  As we raise up our community joys and concerns, we listen deeply and hold those joys and needs in our hearts.  It is a way of practicing being Sabbath for one another.

So what might a Unitarian Universalist Sabbath practice look like?   For I believe deeply, that we as UU’s are in deep need of Sabbath.  As a people we are well-educated and hard working.  We are descendants of the Puritans who emphasized hard work and keeping busy.  They were also an austere people, fearful of too much sensuality.  Many of us are perfectionists.  Many of us want to transform the world and believe deeply that there is no one else to do it.  We are also people of the head who often need to be reminded to pay attention to the heart and to the body.

We can begin with worship.  Worship brings us together in community to sing, to speak, to be silent, to lift up the joys and concerns of our lives.  Worship is a spiritual practice…it gives us both affirmation of who we are and a challenge to go deeper.  Yet a practice requires commitment.  We have no one ordering us to be here, we have to choose.  It is not an easy choice for there is much to distract us…sports practices, shopping, sleeping, work, the internet, television.  I believe our children and youth are longing for Sabbath as well.  We are pushing “doing” younger and younger.  Extracurricular activities start younger.  The homework load is heavy.  In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with any of these things, but all together they take up a lot of time…not leaving much room for stopping, for playing, for just being.

When we participate in worship, we do so with others and we set the example for one another.  We may say that our children, youth and young adults don’t want to come that it is boring.  Yet we need to model for our children and youth the value of religious community and we can only do that when they are here with us.  We need to model a different way of being at least for a certain period of each week.

Sabbath fits into our valuing of the earth.  Sabbath is tied to Creation.  The order to rest was not just given to the people…all of Creation was to rest.  What if each of us set aside some time each week where we didn’t drive? We didn’t buy anything.  Could that become a part of our greening … stopping, resting, playing.

I am also struck that the time is marked not just with rest and stopping.  Sabbath is marked by rest but it also makes room for all those things we just don’t get around to.  Playing with our children, taking a walk, sharing a meal with friends and family.  It is not all about being serious and somber. It is also about play and recreation – literally re-creation.  Sabbath does not have to be quiet to be Sabbath.  It can filled with conversation, with singing, with laughter!  The spiritual life is not just a serious and somber; it is filled with laughter and joy!  Ringwald describes Sabbath this way,  “It is a festival in and of time, freeing us from the shackles of clock time and thrusting us into the freedom of divine time.” (A Day Apart, p. 25)

It will not be easy.    It will mean saying no to some things.  It may mean that people will be annoyed with you…maybe even members of your family.  There will always be an “if only”.  As our reading reminds us we do not stop because the work is done, the work will never be done. It will not always be convenient.  It will require discipline.

Yet we do not have to do it all at once. We don’t suddenly have to adopt a 24 hour Sabbath.  We can begin with a commitment to coming to worship on Sunday morning.  Or we can begin with an evening without tv or the computer and dinner around the table with family.  It can begin with taking 20 minutes out of the day to notice our breathing, to read, to meditate.

So I invite you all into Sabbath..into rest..into stopping. I invite you into re-creation and play.  Develop your own practice filled with things you love but never make the time for – like naps, reading, making music, a long walk, a meal with friends and/or family.  Stop and take the time to notice what is around you.  Take the time to be and not just do.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

For Thanksgiving: A Reflection on Gratitude

I know it is probably trite to reflect on gratitude on Thanksgiving.  It seems that we should be reflecting on gratitude all year round and not just wait for November or even just one day in November to be promptly followed by a gluttonous amount of eating and shopping.  So often, many of us go through the motions of gratitude and thanks on Thanksgiving while planning our trip to the mall the next day or, if you are like me, being very self righteous about not shopping on Black Friday or Cyber Monday ... but I am feeling different on this Thanksgiving eve.

This year I am sitting in a place of deep gratitude.  My sister and I are connecting on a deeper level than we ever have before.  Thanks to her and her husband, I was able to attend the Choice Center Personal Development and Leadership training.  My Discovery and Breakthrough weekends were opportunities for me to be stretched beyond what I thought possible.  It was one of the hardest and most painful things I have done along with one of the most liberating and joyful.  Out of it my inner walls of fear, insecurity and anger have been broken down.  I know, though, that without all that came before these two weekends, I could not have had the experience I did. The walls came down because I had been doing the work long before Choice Center ever entered my life. Choice Center does powerful work and I am grateful to the staff, trainers, coaches and the participants who made those two weekends so amazing. So I am grateful this year to Choice Center for its work and how it has transformed my sister, my brother in law and me.  All of us are more open and more committed to creating deep and authentic relationships.

I am also grateful for the hard things, the things that helped build those walls.  Not because those things should have happened - many of them are things no one should ever experience.  I am grateful because I know that the hard things, the hard times do as much to shape us as the joyful ones.  I have re-discovered that grief and joy are intrinsically bound.  We cannot fully appreciate life until we appreciate death.  We cannot fully appreciate joy until we have appreciated sorrow.  Otherwise if there is no grief, no sorrow then we are very tempted to take the people in our lives for granted.

I also know that my hard times have made me a more empathetic person.  As my family has struggled financially over the last year, I have a new appreciation for those who do not have the privileges I do. Gifts such as people who have had the means and willingness to help us along with the education, skills and opportunities that will enable us to build a more abundant life.  The reality is that I can appreciate people who live with poverty every day in a way I never would have by simply reading about it.  Poverty and scarcity breed fear, isolation and shame deepened by the culture of this country.  That those who don't have, don't have because that is what they deserve and that those that have, have somehow earned it. I can never again talk about "welfare queens" and people "scamming the system" or say that "people are lazy and don't want to work."  People want, long for, need work.  What they don't need is work that is demeaning, inadequate, looked down upon.  How many of us look down on people in certain jobs?  Cleaning people, garbage collectors, the people at Walmart, fast food, anyone who works with their hands.  Yet what would happen if no one did those jobs? What would happen if there was no one to do the work we demean?  What if we honored all work?  What if all people made a living wage? What if all people had health insurance and care? What if people didn't have to work multiple jobs just too eek out a living?

Today is Thanksgiving and I remember when the only places open on that day were a few restaurants, hotels and the 7-11 and of course, emergency services like police, fire and medical people. Now we can begin our Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving.  Instead of focusing on time with family, friends and giving thanks we can just add another day of shopping to the list.  The saddest thing of all is the people who have to work on Thanksgiving so that others can shop without having to wait for Friday.  Now working on Thanksgiving is nothing new.  My great-grandfather Manuel Sequeira was the window dresser for the City of Paris department store in San Francisco.  His job was to oversee the set up of the huge Christmas tree that was in the window facing Union Square.  He was never home on Thanksgiving because he was busy readying the store for Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping season (remember when Christmas carols and shopping didn't start until after Thanksgiving instead of before Halloween). Of course police, fire, military hospital employees all know about working on Thanksgiving.  Yet overall the idea was that Thanksgiving was truly about being with friends and family - not about more shopping!  We long for deep connection with others, we long for rest, we long to come home to ourselves.  We long for Sabbath and Sabbath cannot be bought!  Sabbath means to stop and to stop we don't need anything at all! We just need to do it.

So this Thanksgiving be with your friends and your family.  Don't shop at least not on Thanksgiving itself! Enjoy just being with those you love. Take time to remember those who you love that are no longer with you - parents, grandparents, children, friends, aunts, uncles, cousins.  Remember them!  Tell stories about them!  Make their spirits present in the room and most important pass their stories down to the next generation!  Also look around the room or the table this Thanksgiving.  Take time to stop and really look into the eyes of those you love.  Just look! How long has it been since you have just looked into the eyes of the ones you love?  I assure you it is one of the most powerful gifts we can give to one another - to look deeply into each other's eyes and truly see the other! Then offer your thanks!  Go around the table and let each person say at least one thing they are grateful for on this day...if they can talk they can offer gratitude! Don't forget to thank all those who are working on Thanksgiving - all those who would much rather be celebrating with friends and family. Also remember those who are alone; who have no one to look deeply into their eyes and say I love you.  The day is called Thanksgiving - so give thanks and practice giving!

So on this day of thanks I offer thanks to all of you who read and share my blog with others!  It is as much an act of giving as it is a labor of love from me to you!

May you and your family have an amazing Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Way Closing Reveals the Path

Parker Palmer is one of my favorite authors.  In his book, Let Your Voice Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation he recounts the story of talking to an older Quaker woman named Ruth about being frustrated that the way was not opening despite the Quaker teaching that the way opens.  She says to Parker that she didn't know a lot about the way opening but she knew a lot about the way closing.  Palmer tells us that they shared a knowing laugh.

I am not new to discovering that we often find our way through by paying attention to which doors close, or in some cases, slam in our face.  Sometimes it is just that doors we believed we wanted to go through simply do not open and a new way must be found.  Sometimes we choose to close a door.

Recently I have come to a place where I realize that the door to a full time permanent job is not opening for me right now.  The doors that are opening are part-time and/or short term projects.  So given that, I am living into creating my own job through part time possibilities, short term projects, teaching, guest preaching, consulting, and other projects that come my way.  I admit that this idea of working for myself terrifies me in one way and is exhilarating on the other.  One homework assignment my coach gave me is to do something new every day or something that scares me! This is both.  I have to say though that I am more excited than scared and the whole idea is energizing.

So I am moving from "I am looking for a job" to I am progressive faith leader working as a preacher, teacher and facilitator.  I am seeking opportunities to use my gifts and skills in a variety of settings and ways. 

The first things I am doing as I lean into this new path is to use this blog to market and sell my gifts and skills.  I am seeking to expand my readers.  I am going to publish set days each week.  One post will be a reflection from me and a second will be a  summary of articles that I am reading.  I am going to submit to other places to get published.  I am going to continue to network.  I am also going to work on a book about my own spiritual journey with an eye to providing inspiration and guidance to others.

So I ask you to keep with me on the journey. Share my posts with others.  If you want me to come preach or consult let me know. I also ask for your thoughts and prayers that a way will continue to open and opportunities will come my way that might be great for me, my family and those that I serve.

What doors have closed for youWhat doors have you closed
What ways opened as a result of those closed doors?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Diving Deep Who Do You Ask to Help Guide the Journey?

Over the course of my adult life I have been blessed with many professionals who have helped me to dive deep into my life.  I have worked with great and not-so-great therapists, career counselors, spiritual directors and now I can add coaching to the list.  Each of these people has brought different gifts and techniques to help me dive deeply into who I am and who I am becoming.  While there seems to be a common purpose - at least as far as my own experience goes - each has a unique focus. They are not interchangeable and one might need more than one at a time.  So if I am wanting to dive deep but need a guide who do I choose?

My first diving was into therapy.  I first went into therapy at my parent's insistence in high school. It was not helpful. First rule of any of these relationships is that you have to want to do the work and you have to like the person you are working with.  That is true of a therapist, a coach, a spiritual director.  No one in any of these professions can help you if you don't want it or you don't like who you are working with.

In college I did better. After another mis-match with another male psychiatrist (no bashing of psychiatrists but my own experience is that they are not great therapists and gender makes a difference), I found a wonderful woman psychologist.  Therapy, and I have since worked with two others, is really about understanding your mental and emotional self.  It is really about the past.  What are the events, family members, family systems that have contributed for good and for ill (although often the focus in more on the ill) that have shaped your present reality - again for good and for ill (but you wouldn't be there if it was all going swell!)  Therapy is great for understanding oneself in one's family of origin.  I come from a family that included an alcoholic parent and have witnessed the struggle of other family members with addiction. Therapy helped me understand the affect of that on me and who I am.  I struggled with my relationship with my family and mild to moderate depression so therapy helped me sort that out and understand myself more deeply in terms of my family system.

It was at Georgetown that I had my first spiritual director. While I had always consulted on and off for years various parish priests and religious leaders for advice and pastoral care, it was not until college that I had experience of a spiritual director.  Spiritual directors focus on your spiritual life and your relationship with the holy.  My first spiritual director was over a 5-day silent Ignatian retreat. My director taught drama at Georgetown. I met with him daily and we would talk about my prayer life and the particular Ignatian exercise the group was doing.  It was a powerful experience.  I have been privileged to have a number of spiritual directors over the years. Sometimes for very short focused periods like on that Ignatian retreat.  Others I have had longer relationships with.  Always the sessions begin with prayer and focus on my relationship with the sacred.  Certainly spiritual direction will also touch on real lived experience so incorporating everyday issues or difficult situations/relationships will come into play and definitely questions of vocation and call will be explored but the focus here is on spiritual discipline, practice and my relationship with the holy.  I have worked with directors of various religious backgrounds and materials have included the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, books from religious writers, Tarot cards and dream work.

Most recently I entered the world of coaching.  My coaching work has centered on job searching.  Coaches focus on the present and the goals you set for living a better, more fulfilling life as you define it.  I have really valued the goal centered, directed way my coach Dave Kaiser works with me.  I have homework after each call.  I get great feedback and all of it is about reaching my own goals or even changing the goals if the first ones don't work.  Dave is an Executive Coach.  I first encountered Dave on a Georgetown Alumni webinar, The Power of Magical Thinking. I was hoping to energize my job search and was looking for a coach.  I asked Dave about his experience in working with people with my background of non-profit, faith professionals and he had experience.  One thing about working with someone who usually works with for-profit professionals is that he doesn't bring all the pre-conceived baggage that I carry from the non-profit world.  For example, I was given an opportunity to interview for what I thought would be a great fit for me at a college.  The position had all the right pieces and I was excited about the possibility.  When they asked me to interview they told me the salary.  The salary was a good $20,000 below my expectation/need.  With Dave's coaching I went back to them to try and find a way to bridge that gap.  Unfortunately they wouldn't budge but the experience of not just accepting the too-low salary or walking away entirely, gave me an entirely new perspective on myself and the value of my skills and experience.

The work of therapy, spiritual direction and coaching obviously intersect. I am currently in spiritual direction and work with a coach.  Since vocation has been top of my concern list, there is overlap for me in working with both but there is distinction.  My spiritual direction focuses on my prayer life, on my spiritual practice.  Dave may assign me to take something to prayer (knowing that is important to me) but his focus is on the practical work of helping me live out my vocation.  My work with Dave focuses on what type of work I want to be doing, how I both deepen my current network and expand it in order to move closer to what is next, how I get myself in front of an organization before there is a position open, and/or how I open myself to possibilities not yet examined. Because of that last task, I am now beginning to embark on the journey of working for myself, having a more portfolio career (more on that in my next post!), now the work focuses on the concrete steps I can take to make it happen. Perhaps, most importantly, all along the way Dave has encouraged me and given me pep talks while still helping me to be realistic and grounded.

Who have you asked to guide you on your journey?  
Are you thinking about asking someone, what is it you are looking for?   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Lie

When I was a child, one day I started throwing rocks into the deep end of our pool for no apparent reason other than it seemed fun at the time.  I knew not to throw rocks into the pool.  When asked about the rocks I said that the boy next door had done it.  Of course, it did come out that I had done it.  My father (I learned this later because I still don't remember my dad talking to me but I remember the huge impact it had on me), sat me down and told me how terrible lying is and that President Nixon had to resign because of the lies he told. That event and the talking to made a huge impression on me.  My wife will tell you that I am too honest.  It is not completely true of course.  I can lie particularly by omission but as a rule I cannot abide by lying.

I have written about this before in terms of youth below the age of 13 lying about their birth date to get on Facebook.  I still feel that if we want to teach our children honesty and to be honest then we have to practice it (even if we think the arbitrary age of 13 is ridiculous, I disagree with having to be 21 to drink alcohol but I wouldn't encourage an 18 year old to drink or to lie about their age to do so).  So I am not a fan of lying - not sure anyone would say they were but I know that being lied to sets me off in a way that few other things do.

So why this long introduction and exactly what is the point today?  Well our society seems to be awash with lies, particularly in the arenas where we most need reliable sources of truth.  Currently there is a nasty battle going on here in Virginia with the Governor race.  We just witnessed the fiasco of the government shut-down and debt ceiling crisis.  Our political ads are filled with lies and designed to mislead.  We have had news sources say it is not their job to correct the lies that are passed off as facts.  It is particularly true when it comes to the Affordable Care Act that the false and misleading information is rampant.  We are raising our children in a culture that says it is okay to lie in order to win.

Even our religious leaders are not immune, particularly when they venture into the region of politics.  The head of the Family Research Council has the audacity to state that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures don't require care for the least of these.  One quote from Isaiah illustrates how wrong he is: Isaiah 1:17

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Clearly Israel is being punished not because of their lack of worship or prayer.  They are being punished because they are not caring for the least of these (these 'least' in Isaiah's Israel and still today in our country are children and single parents).

Lying is explicitly in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:16) and it has to do with bearing false witness.  Our political system however is currently predicated on bearing false witness.  Unfortunately we also have a news culture that is tending toward the same in the name of presenting the most extreme views and calling it balanced reporting.  So we will have a conservative evangelical Christian with a view of Scripture as inerrant and an atheist who thinks all religion is harmful.  That is not balanced reporting! It is shock reporting or looking for great viewer ratings. It is a cultural phenomenon to have a political culture and news culture that promotes bearing false witness.

So what is the average person to do?  In reality we are left on our own to sort through the various myriad speeches, ads, news coverage and try to come to a conclusion.  We hope it is a reasonable one.  Yet this whole system is predicated on fear, fear of the other, fear that someone will take what little you or I have.  If we are kept in a constant state of fear then it makes it more difficult to sort out the lies.  Over and over in history we can see how at the core of our worst atrocities, worst genocides were the lies told to keep people in fear. The German people were lost and broken after World War I and Hitler gave them targets to blame and to fear.  The Bosnian Serbs convinced people that  Bosnian Muslims and Croatians were fundamentally different and inferior and should be destroyed.  In this country Native Americans and African Americans have been similarly treated.

Lies and fear keep people in closets. These lies are not just the ones that come from the outside in (like the lie that being gay is simply a sinful choice); lies are also internalized (internalized racism, sexism or homophobia) and the lies we tell ourselves are some of the most dangerous.  Humans have a remarkable capacity to deny facts even when they are right in front of them.  Like the people in Germany who lived around the concentration camps.  Like those in South African cities that didn't think Apartheid was all that bad.  Like those of us in this country that refuse to believe that innocent people go to jail; that our justice system works equally for people of all races and that poor people are really just lazy and make poor choices.

So what are we to do?  How do we resist this culture of lying?  Well I think it begins by asking critical questions of the news and news stories we receive.  It begins by asking whose voices are not being heard.  Maybe it begins with refusing to believe any political ad, turning them off, and doing the hard work of reading a candidate's platform.  Let's move beyond the tweet and the sound bite when it comes to making decisions about who to vote for.  It begins with being truthful with ourselves. What lies are we telling to ourselves? to our spouses/partners? to our children?  What do we refuse to see?  What do our communities refuse to see?  Do we refuse to see the poverty of our neighbors (or maybe even the members of our faith communities)?  Do we refuse to see how our privilege of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, class, education that insulates us from the suffering and oppression of others?

We must emerge from denial and face ourselves, our communities and our world with honesty.  We must bear witness.  In every act of suffering, genocide, and oppression, the largest number of people are guilty of refusing to see the truth, refusing to bear witness.  Part of the duty of not bearing false witness to actually bear witness. It is the story of the mouse and the elephant as explained by Desmund Tutu.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of the mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

How can you stop bearing false witness?  To what must you bear witness?  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When All the Choices Are Poor

Recently Slate and New York Times published articles on recent scientific research on decision making and poverty. Both articles make the excellent point that poverty in and of itself affects people profoundly and their ability to make "good" decisions.  Both articles point out that when money is scarce and is scarce over time, relentlessly, and even in short term situations, then ability to make what most would consider "good" or "future-oriented" choices is limited.  Now the New York Times article goes a bit further to explore how the options available to poor people are fewer.  For example, many poor or working class people don't have much in the way of savings or access to credit.  So people in this situation come to rely on sources like payday lenders and title loans. One does not have to be a Nobel-award winning economist to know that these are horrible options to be avoided.  Yet if one is faced with a cash shortage and the rent is due, one has no other borrowing options, then the only choice may be to take the payday loan.  If all the choices are poor - not paying the rent, taking out a payday loan, taking a title loan - then how does one assess what the "good" or "better" choice would be?

So while I appreciate these articles, I struggle with this notion of the poor "making poor choices" when poverty is restricting choices.  If the actual situation of poverty and scarcity is creating conditions of poor choices i.e., there are no good ones - then how do we label these choices "poor." I might argue that the poor have to be innovative and creative in their choices as demonstrated by the author of the Slate article.  The poor person knows that they can't shop at Whole Foods or maybe even the grocery store closest to them. The poor person may have to shop at multiple stores to make their food dollars stretch. I bet if we did a study of those receiving food assistance and who live on extremely limited income, the results might suggest that do more actual work to procure food and have to be more creative at it, then those who are more middle class.  They may know how to stretch a food budget, because they have to, then the person who does not struggle with scarcity.

Both of these articles brought to mind a quote from James Luther Adams in his critique of liberal religion. Adams wrote "...the emphasis on the quality of the will,on the disposition of the entire personality, was replaced by a one-sided emphasis on 'reason.'...Thus religious liberalism, in the name of intellectual integrity, tended to neglect the deeper levels both of the human consciousness and of reality itself." (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.59)  When it comes the decisions people make around money, there is tendency to believe that all decisions regarding money are made rationally.  That we make decisions about money without regard to our emotions, our past history or the messages we have received.  Yet as Adams reminds we are not simply rational creatures. These articles actually show the affect of scarcity on the brain.  If you want another example read SNAP challenge blog of Panera CEO, Ron Shaich. He points out that when food was scarce, all he thought about was food and what he could and could not have.  Anyone who has been on a diet for any length of time knows the same thing. Not to mention the sense of isolation from others.  This is doubled for people struggling financially because we are schooled early on, particularly those raised with any class privilege, one does not talk about money and one does not ask for help.

Adams also rightly points out that liberal religion has frequently only appealed to certain classes of people - upper and well educated because Unitarians in particular relegated emotions and conversion to those who are underprivileged and ignorant. (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.60).  Unitarian Universalists continue to struggle with class and even in their work for justice often end up coming as "great white saviors" here to rescue the poor from their bad decisions.  This comes through in attitudes towards those who shop at Walmart and other low-cost stores. There is a clear disdain that comes through; "I would never shop there."

There are many great suggestions about long-term fixes such as low cost loans, access to emergency cash that would make the lives of those living with scarcity better. What I want to add is that we have to stop characterizing poor people as making poor decisions.  Again if all the options are poor options, what is one to do?  If we continue to define things as "good decisions" and "bad decisions" then we continue the cycle of putting the burden of poverty on individuals rather than on a economic system that shuts people out and keeps people poor.  Again our language blames poor people for their poverty.  Even in cases where one might not understand the choice - buying expensive sneakers for a child, paying for a smart phone, or other "luxury" items might be seen differently if we thought about maybe those expensive shoes are the only "nice" thing that child owns or sports may be seen as the ticket out of the cycle of poverty.  Maybe that phone is the only internet access that family has or is needed to maintain whatever work is available.  Suddenly even these "poor choices" look differently when we take into account the whole of a person's life.

So I appreciate these articles for pointing out that poverty itself affects the whole of a person's life - it is not just about paying rent, buying food and making good rational choices about how to do that - but rather poverty itself affects the brain, the spirit of a person.  Yet please stop characterizing their decisions as "poor." When choices are limited, which they are for those who are poor, then people are just making the best choices they can given the options available.

Have you experienced scarcity in your life?  In what ways?  Have you experienced the narrowing of options and choices due to circumstances? When you have you experienced a time of "no good choices"?  How does your understanding of "no good choices" affect your understanding of those who are poor if you yourself are not struggling with scarcity of money?

Thursday, October 10, 2013


So starting on Friday around 3 pm I declared for myself an e-mail Sabbath. I decided I was not going to look at my email until Monday. I set a vacation message and turned email notifications off on my phone and tablet. Why did I do this?

Well I met with my spiritual director on Friday at Richmond Hill. I found myself longing to be at Richmond Hill for a number of days of silent retreat. I did this shortly after I left my job. I spent five days at Richmond Hill - I prayed, participated in the community prayer life, attended a centering prayer circle, read books, slept, walked the labyrinth, met with a spiritual director and other than talking to my family each night I was off all social media and email. I wore a silent tag around my neck and ate my meals in the room set aside for those observing silence. It was absolutely wonderful! So while I could not at this point do a silent retreat at Richmond Hill I knew I needed a Sabbath. I needed to take a break from the job searching, networking, emailing. It was a good break. I read, I played on Facebook, Pinterest, and hung out with my family. I stayed off this computer all weekend. I didn't even write my blog post because I just needed to stop.

Sabbath is about stopping. It is about unplugging, turning off the devices and paying attention to time and each other in a different way. Judaism has an amazing Sabbath tradition. All work ceases from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset. Sabbath is tied to creation - God resting on the seventh day. A few years ago I preached a sermon on Sabbath, after I had read Wayne Muller's book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and another wonderful book called A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom and Joy on the Sabbath by Christopher Ringwald.  These two books informed the Sabbath practice I developed over my time working in a congregation. I was always very intentional about turning off work email notifications on Sunday evening and they did not go back on until Tuesday morning.  I did no work on Monday.  I spent the day with my family, I cooked, I read, I slept in.  It was critical to my work that I stop, step away and let work take a back seat.  You see I have learned I often think that I always have to be working.  That if I am not working than I must be lazy.  You can imagine that being unemployed since March might just be getting to me.

What I discovered is that I have treated my job search much like my work. Doing it all the time, thinking about it when I am not doing it, feeling guilty if I find myself carried away by an interesting article on Facebook.  There is this constant sense that I must always be emailing, figuring out who to reach out to next, searching web sites for job listings.  Since there is urgency about the job search and since it is not like a job with hours, it is easy to be sucked into the notion that there should be nothing else in my life right now except job searching.  So each day I sit at this computer writing and reaching out.  Doing research on various organizations or people.  Sometimes I am writing resumes or cover letters.  Yet most of this work is not immediate pay off. It is planting seeds and waiting for them to grow. It is following up with people (watering the plants) and waiting.  Hoping there is just the right mix of sun, rain, warm, cold to nurture this garden of job searching.  A lot of it is like watching grass grow - you can't see the progress until you step away.

Well I had not been stepping away very well.  I felt like I had to be at the work, all the time and if I wasn't doing something then I was either feeling guilty or thinking about what I needed to do next.  It was too much and I was done.  So I turned off my email.  Now one of the gifts of a religious or spiritual practice of Sabbath is that you do it at the same time every week without exception.  So Sabbath comes for Jews on Friday at sunset every week.  For those who observe Sabbath in a more traditional way, work goes away, the candles are lit, children are blessed, wine/juice are consumed and services are attended.  Of course each family, each congregation, each denomination has its own traditions to this practice.  For some it is removal of the watch, for some video games go up and for others they come out (the only time the children are allowed to play them), computers go off...but in some way time is marked in a different way then any other day of the week.

That is the beauty of spiritual practice and how even more wonderful for that practice to be celebrated by millions of people, each week, around the world.  That is the gift of being part of a world-wide religious community.  It is probably one of the things I miss most about being part of the Roman Catholic Church. I knew that I could walk into a Roman Catholic Church, any where in the world and be a part of that community.

So after this weekend I am thinking I need a Sabbath practice.  I need to regularly turn off email. I need to step away from the job search. I need ways to mark time differently.  It is time to return to the spiritual discipline of rest.

Do you have a Sabbath practice?  What does it look like?  How do you fit rest and renewal into your life?  What does your spiritual life and discipline tell you about work, rest and play?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Seeking for What's Next

So I am looking for what's next. Many of my blog posts over the last six months have been focused on wrestling with questions about vocation, letting go of the past and moving forward as I have been seeking to listen to where I am called to serve.

After doing some great work with my coach, Dave Kaiser at Dark Matter Consulting (who I highly recommend!), I have a much clearer vision about the type of work I both most enjoy and I am good at, the type of place I want to use my gifts and the kinds of people I both want to work with and serve.

So this blog post is a networking request. I am looking at some specific places and I am open to exploring others I have not yet identified. I am looking for a new full time position and I am looking for short term projects. I love to guest preach! I love to do consulting and can consult on a wide range of topics like being a healthy congregation, faith formation, campus ministry, multi-generational community and others. So please share this post or if you know someone at an organization that might be a good fit, and you are willing, please provide an introduction. If you have a job and think I could be a great fit, let me know I would love to talk to you.

Scott Varney is continuing to work on this site for me. Again Scott is a great musician, graphic designer along with being a good friend and awesome dad! Right now under the "Work" page there is a video of me preaching and then audio file with then Powerpoint of a workshop I did at the Unitarian Univeralist General Assembly. Other video and audio files are coming. Also a pdf of my CV will be up there.

I am looking for a position working in an educational institution, either a foundation, non-profit or college/university that utilizes my teaching, facilitating, organizing, and program management skills. I am particularly interested in multi-faith or ecumenical programs or ventures. In an ideal world, the position will be mid to upper management/program level with the ability to stretch and challenge me. Positions that would create or manage Interfaith Initiatives at a college/university or manage a regional, national or even worldwide program(s) or project(s) focusing on education, ethics or religious pluralism would be ideal. I would prefer the Southeast ... someplace like Atlanta or to stay here in Virginia... but I am also willing to look at other locations with the right opportunity though moving north much beyond DC would be last on the list. I would be interested in international locations as well especially in the United Kingdom.

Secondly, I am looking for ways to expand readership of my blog and traffic to my Facebook page. So please share my posts, comment, give me suggestions for topics!  It is a way to get my name out there and I also hope to use it to generate some short-term projects like guest preaching, writing/research, teaching or facilitating workshops. If you hear of appropriate short term projects that might be a fit, please pass my name along.

Have you liked my Facebook page yet?  Are you following me on Twitter?

What is up next for you?  What are you seeking?  How do you know what you are looking for? 
Who is helping you find what's next?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Shame, Guilt and Fear are Poor Teachers and Motivators

I recently posted a comment on a friend's Facebook status that "shame and guilt are poor teachers and motivators" and since I wrote that I added fear and I realized how often we use shame, guilt and fear thinking they are the most effective ways to get people to change their lives, change their behavior and do and be the things we think they should be doing and being.  We believe that these are the most effective tools to use with children and then we extend it to the most vulnerable - the poor, the marginalized, those in prison.  We love shame, guilt and fear and in fact one will often hear comments about the lack of these particular qualities in today's children. That children are too coddled and they need to have the "fear of God put into them." Think about that for a minute:  we need to "put the fear of God into" a person, a vulnerable child.  Just a tad inconsistent with the message of God's unconditional, all forgiving, love or the notion that "God is love."  It is either one or the other - it can't be both.

I encourage you to think about the role fear, shame and guilt have played in your life. Now I am not talking here about the guilt one feels when one has genuinely hurt another person and wants to make amends. Guilt is a part of that process. It is not that all guilt, all fear, or all shame are bad - it is that when they are the only ways we think someone can change or learn that we run into trouble.  How many things have you avoided out of fear, shame or guilt?  I can't go talk to that person - I am just too embarrassed, I feel guilty, it has been too long.  So instead of guilt giving us the impetus to heal a relationship, it becomes a barrier.  So we continue to avoid it.  People have died not speaking to another person, or reconciling with one they loved because guilt or fear or shame have kept them from reaching out.  How awful is that?  How sad is that?

What about things like body image? We love to fat shame. When we see clothing stores refusing to stock larger size clothing or stories like this

promoting a vision of average size women and  the response is that they are promoting obesity.  As someone who has been labeled fat and shamed literally her entire life, I will personally testify that shaming someone into your vision of their body never works.  It actually results in the opposite affect - the more shame and guilt and disgust one feels for one's own flesh leads to negative behavior either through over-eating and under-exercising or by starving oneself.  Yet over and over again we see people looking to shame as the ultimate tool for promoting "healthy bodies."

Some of the worst cases of shame, fear and guilt come when it comes to those who are unemployed, receiving public assistance of any kind, the poor.  When I mention the word poor what other words come to mind? Are they hard working, industrious, innovative, ingenious?  Because to be working class or poor in this country requires that you be all those things.  Often people are working more than one job, they are spending time looking to stretch every single dime of their food dollars (read some of the accounts of those who have taken the SNAP challenge), they are going hungry so their children won't, and they are dealing not with praise but with disdain and scorn.  Because if your image of the working class and poor is coming from newspaper, popular culture or politicians the answer would be no. The words that come to mind are lazy, parasitical, unmotivated, and the list goes on.  We hear about people receiving SNAP buying high-price steaks, gaming the system.  Over and over, someone, knows someone who doesn't really need financial assistance or disability but is receiving it.  It motivates the humiliating, intrusive interviews for assistance that assume the very worst. It even permeates our faith communities, where even there assistance is given with the assurance that we would never just give a person cash directly or help a person more than once.  Now some of that is trying to make a small pot of money stretch as far as one can - particularly in an economy that has been in the state ours has been in really a very long time yet it also perpetuates the assumption that poor people are likely to scam faith communities.  It motivates legislation like not allowing people to feed the homeless in public parks or requiring drug testing before receiving assistance.  The assumption over and over again is that people would rather just be given a hand out rather than earning an adequate pay check with health care, retirement and be self-sufficient.  So we use the tactics of shame and guilt. We think surely if we shame them enough they will cease to be poor or if not that, they will at least stop asking for help.

I grew up on stories in my family about welfare recipients having more babies just so they could stay on assistance or get more.  Stories of food stamps going to buy expensive food.  I grew up believing that the poor were lazy and unwilling to work.  Of course as the middle class has eroded and the paths out of poverty have become fewer and far between, more middle class people have slipped into poverty.  The statistics tell a grim story.  Literally millions of people in this very rich country are experiencing hunger, economic insecurity and coming closer and closer to the dreaded label of poor. Yet we somehow are led to believe that all these millions of people are looking to deceive the system.  We would rather believe that they all don't want to work and they could have a job if they just looked harder rather than admit that our entire economic system works for only about 5% of the population.  Shame, fear and guilt are powerful but they don't create positive change.  In fact the more we shame people, make them feel guilty and instill fear, the less able people are to find that better job, be motivated to go back to school, learn a new skill, network with people who might be able to give them a job.  Job seeking is work, hard work and those who have done know that you need inner confidence, hope and drive to keep seeking, to keep trying in the face of rejection.  Fear, guilt and shame will only provide more barriers, making people less able to help themselves.

I could turn to many other examples in education, health care, our criminal justice system and over and over we would see that we continue to believe that shame, guilt and fear are the best teachers and motivators. Yet over and over we see their failure.  True motivation and effective teachers are those that offer praise and constructive feedback.  The best teachers do not just pass you along not believing you can do any better (and they make sure you know that) or yell and publicly shame you.  The best teachers will keep finding ways to teach you, show you until you get it  My best teachers are the ones that inspired me to do my best. My best example of this was in graduate school.  My second reader for my final project was the one who first encouraged me to get an MTS instead of an MA, was the hardest critic of my papers but always available to read a draft and give feedback, and looked at me when I was doubting I could finish and said "Margaret, you can do this."  That meant the world. I did finish.

The reason my coach has been so powerful is because he believes in me. He asks me each time we talk what success to celebrate from the last week. Let me tell you having someone celebrate your success with you, even if it is a small one, can keep you going.  It can give you the strength to reach beyond what you thought you could do.  Fear, guilt and shame will never do that. Fear, guilt and shame will put you in a box and make sure you never venture beyond it.  They can only keep you locked in fear - they can't free you.

I actually find in my life that it is not until I clear the guilt, the shame and the fear away that I can actually do what needs to be done. Take the deep breath, face whatever it is and do my best.  Over and over again in both the Hebrew and Christian scripture, God's messenger's or God's first words are "Don't be Afraid." Maybe we need to take those words to heart and offer support, love and the reminder to those struggling "Don't be Afraid."  Maybe we need to celebrate their success (no matter how small) with them and to stop critiquing and berating them for the mistakes of the past.  Maybe we need to keep believing in them, the way God keeps believing in us.  It is not that we don't get more than we can handle in this life, that is not God's promise, God's promise is that God will always be there, no matter what happens.  God will always take us back, take us in, loves us and forgives us. Wouldn't be wonderful if God's people modeled that in our world? Now that is reason to hope, that is a reason to change!

What are your best motivators and teachers?  How have shame, fear and guilt kept you from leading a full life?  What have you put off out of shame or guilt? What would make it possible for you to live your most authentic life?  Who are the people in your life that you can count on to be there for you?