Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When You Can't Find the Words

Last week I did sit down to write but the words would not flow.  First the death of Robin Williams hit me hard.  I am GenX and I grew up with Mork and Mindy, loved Dead Poet Society and growing up in the Bay Area I regularly  passed the sign on the highway that Williams adopted.  He was just there as a part of my life, bringing laughter and poignant truth.  His struggle with depression drove home a deeper awareness of my own.  I began talking about it a little more openly.  Depression is hard, it saps your vitality and makes you weary.  That kind of soul weary that no amount of sleep can cure.

I have deeply appreciated all those who have shared publicly their stories of depression.  Each story gives a name to this disease that affects so many and takes many lives.  Stories like this one that describe well my own experience.  One thing that has bothered me, however, in the coverage is the notion that if Robin had just reached out he would still be here.  Now don't get me wrong posting hotline numbers is critical for those who may not know there is help, who may think they are alone particularly teenagers and young adults.  In my experience young people struggle both with depression and a lack of life experience that would let them know that things will change, that life is a journey of changes.  Robin Williams was 63 and I am quite sure had the best modern medicine and therapy had to offer.  None except Robin himself know what happened the morning he took his life, the morning that he believed the lie it would not get better.  I am sure he knew the numbers of some of the professionals that he could have reached out to that day. Yet on that day he could do it no longer and our world has lost a brilliant, talented and deeply caring man.  His family lost a loving husband and father. While this will never be listed, Robin Williams died due to depression, an illness he had battled for years. 

Secondly there was the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.  Another young African American youth gunned down because white America fears men of color.  Officer Wilson drew his weapon and fired 6 shots into the unarmed Michael Brown.  His body laid on the street for 4 hours.  A community erupted with rage and grief that another young life was taken and the response of the overwhelmingly white police force was to meet them in full military riot gear. Yes there was some violence and some looting and media made no differentiation between peaceful protestors and looters.  More violence and arrests were made.  As a white person I must speak out and say that no more black men should die because white people are afraid.  Black lives matter and we must root out the poison of white privilege that has left not just Michael Brown dead but Trayvon Martin and so many others whose deaths don't make the news not to mention those who are wounded, beat up and locked away with no media to tell their story.

As a person of faith and religious leader I cannot remain silent.  Another young life has been ended and another family is grieving.  We do not live in a post-racial society and racism is the reason Michael Brown is dead as much as the bullets in his body.  I have privilege in this country because of my skin color. I didn't ask for it and I didn't earn it. I was born into a system where some lives matter more than others.  If I am to believe that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, that we all have worth and dignity, than I cannot accept a system that privileges white skin over all other colors.  It is not about feeling guilty or shoving my privilege under a bushel as if I didn't have it. It is about knowing I have it, acknowledging there are things I accept as "normal" that are not true for far too many others.  It is about speaking up and saying that we have to stop the war on young men of color. We have to say not one more and never again and we have to mean it. How long before we really mean it?

So I may not have 1000's of readers here but I can speak out to those I have.  I once again found my words and my voice and I will use it to speak out.  I pray for the family of Michael Brown and all the other African American families that lost friends and family members at the hands of police and vigilantes. I pray for the family of Robin Williams and all who loved him.  I pray for those who also struggle with depression.  We live in a hurting world, that needs our healing and our voices for change.  Will you join me? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When Sabbath is Hard Revisited

As we get closer to the weekend I thought this would be an appropriate post to share.  For those of us who often use work as a place to escape Sabbath can be hard. It can be hard to set down the work, step away from email and social media.  What will we find when we let ourselves stop, get quiet?  Will we like what we experience?  Hopefully the answer to this is yes!  Hopefully we greet our Sabbath time with joy.  After all in the Jewish tradition Sabbath is greeted like a bride - with joy.  Sabbath is meant to be sweet!

Yet for some of us or maybe just some of the time, Sabbath is hard. In order to keep going we have pushed our feelings aside or down.  We had to just keep going (or at least we thought we did at that time) and now that we have stopped our feelings will no longer let us deny them and push them away.  Then maybe we need Sabbath time even more.  Maybe then we need to let ourselves feel, let ourselves cry, yell, scream, journal, draw. Maybe it is time to call a good friend and talk for a very long time.  Maybe it is a good time to call the professional person - therapist, spiritual leader or director.  Who is it you call when you need someone to listen unconditionally without judgement and without trying to fix you or it?  Do you have someone?

Particularly for those of us who work in careers where we care for others, it is too easy to forget ourselves. We too need time off, someone to listen, someone to hold us.  In fact, it is essential, for if our own wells are dry, what resources will we draw from to serve others?

Also this has been a hard week. So many of us are reeling from the death of the beloved Robin Williams.  So many of us are in despair about the death of two unarmed young men at the hands of police and the subsequent anger, protests and being reminded once again that racism is alive and well.

So I invite all of us to welcome the Sabbath even when it is hard.  Share in the comments what fills your wells when they are empty.  What do you do when Sabbath is hard?  Also share what makes Sabbath sweet. How do you welcome Sabbath as a bride?

Blessings on this Sabbath!  Whether hard or joyful, may it be a time of rest and renewal!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Faith and Doubt

I preached this sermon on Sunday August 10, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story: Hide and Seek with God by Mary Ann Moore

Reading: an excerpt from "Faith of the Free" by James Luther Adams

What, then, is faith?
To many people the word signifies the acceptance of something that puts a strain on the intelligence.  Accordingly, faith is to them a belief is what is not true or in what is by nature not fact but wish.
To others the word faith signifies the acceptance of some belief simply because a church, a tradition, a state, a party, demands it.  They may recall that St. Ignatius of Loyola once said, "We should always be disposed to believe that which appears white to us is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides." With some justification, then, they hold that faith is a belief in "some nice tenets," a "dear deceit" (as archaic as those phrases suggest), which relieves one of the responsibility of thinking for oneself; it is therefore a positively dangerous thing, a form of bigotry that will brook no questioning or criticism and that dresses itself up as "the cure for modern pride" and as "humble obedience to the will of God."
But conventionally "religious" people have no monopoly on credulity. Those who reject the inherited "faith" are sometimes only the victims of a new credulity. Nothing could be more credulous than the belief that faith dies when traditional belief dies. Our world is full to bursting with faiths, each contending for allegiance. Hitler claimed to teach again the meaning of faith, Mussolini shouted to his disciples "Believe, follow and act." "Fascism," he said "before being a party is a religion. "Those who were called to put down the battalions of the brown shirts and the black shirts were asked to show the faith that lies behind freedom. So the procession of the gods passes over the state of our world. Human history is not the struggle between religion and irreligion; it is veritably a battle of faiths; a battle of the gods who claim human allegiance.

Faith and Doubt

So I have to say that writing this sermon did not get off to an auspicious start yesterday.  I had trouble sleeping on Friday night waking up worried, not able to go back to sleep.  I did get some rest but woke up feeling not fully rested. I had this vision of myself getting up early, getting over here to my office and having this sermon knocked out and ready to go by late afternoon.  Instead the lack of sleep left me emotional and stressed and the first half of the day was spent struggling with doubt - doubt in myself, doubting that things would ever get easier or better, doubt.  As a person who lives and works with faith at the center of her life, doubt while necessary and valuable, can be anxiety producing and get in the way of work.

I also started worrying that talking about faith and the necessity of faith in our lives would alienate those among us who are strongly atheist. That my talk of faith would mean that I would be advocating that all of us have to believe in God and by that I mean God as understood as a supernatural all powerful being who brought the world into being and answers our pleas if we are good enough and will reward or punish us for our lives after we are dead.  Another way to say it is that I would be advocating for faith in an all powerful, all seeing, all knowing, unchanging God.  Could I successfully talk about faith and doubt in a way that can encompass a wide range of understandings of beliefs?  So bear with me and I ask your generosity.  If the language doesn't quite fit, I ask you to translate and if I really get it wrong, come see me and let’s talk about it.

I am a person who has faith in God.  Now what exactly does that mean?  Well I do not believe in an all powerful being who is all seeing, all knowing, all powerful, who has supernatural powers to disrupt the laws of nature and the universe and reach down and intervene in the affairs of individuals or even the world. When I say I have faith in God I mean that I trust that there is a spirit, a source of energy and life and creation, of love that is beyond me. It encompasses and transcends me and our physical world but is yet bound up unalterably in it. I believe it is a love that will not let me go.  It is creative and sustaining.   This God who I put my faith in hears my prayers and maybe that is all God does.  “Prayer,” to use the words from the Jewish Prayer Book, “might not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”  Prayer in other words changes me so I can have strength and will to do my part in changing  the world.  It is the faith found in the words of Julian of Norwich "All will be well, all manner of thing shall be well" and as someone reminded me the other day its correlation "If it is not all well, than it is not the end."  It is the faith found in Peter Mayer’s song “Everything is Holy Now”. That is the faith that sustains me but I know that that faith does not sustain everyone. I want to extend an invitation to all of you during these next months to share with me and with each other what sustains you, what keeps you going, what is of ultimate worth to you so much so that doubting it is felt at the core of who you are.

Yesterday my lack of sleep coupled with worry and a heavy dose of doubt.  Mostly doubt in myself which I struggle with in my life. It is one of my growing edges.  Am I good enough?  Am I doing enough?  I am thinking that I am not the only one who struggles with this.  After all most of the positive affirmation messages out there reminds us that we are enough, that we can lean in, that we need to trust that we need to take that leap of faith.  We just need to believe enough to leap.  We need to have faith that we are enough.  I think most of us at some time or another wrestle with this kind of doubt. For some it can be paralyzing at least for a time.  Even when we have wrestled with, worked our way through, for some of us given the right set of conditions – like some stress and lack of sleep – it rears its ugly head.  So while doubt is necessary and can even be empowering, it can also be paralyzing. For me doubting in myself, can lead to doubt about my own faith … the faith that says ‘all will be well’ … another way to express it is that I start to lose hope.

Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorite bloggers and authors, wrote about doubt on her blog recently.  She said "I don’t always tell you about the mornings I wake up and feel the absence of God as though it were a presence—thick and certain, remembered all over again the way you remember in the morning that someone you love has died.”  I have felt that kind of doubt; that kind of wondering if God really does hear my prayers and if God even cares.  One of the great things about the saints and mystics of the Catholic Church is how many of them spoke about doubt, about the dark night of the soul, about the absence of God.  Parker Palmer spoke about it in his books.  Overwhelming doubt, the loss or shattering in what I have put my faith can be devastating.

Doubt is also essential. As Adams points out in our reading, not all faith is helpful and some is even harmful. Doubt can strengthen our faith. We can come out the other side.  Our faith and our very selves changed. Another writer James Hollis tells us that doubt can lead to revelation.  Hollis writes, "To bear the anxiety of doubt is to be led to openness; openness leads to revelation; revelation leads to discovery; discovery leads to enlargement." (Hollis, 220)  When we embrace the anxiety of doubt, not run from it, not suppress it but embrace it then we can allow our faith to deepen, to transform.

While at the time it felt devastating and like my entire world was falling apart when doubt in many of the essentials in my Catholic upbringing emerged, it led me to a deeper sense of faith.  As I realized I could not remain with integrity a Roman Catholic, my faith deepened and was less about what I was raised to believe and more about who I am and what I believe.  My faith at that moment stopped being something handed down to me, unexamined, accepted somewhat uncritically to a deeper examined faith. The kind of faith James Luther Adams tells us is the only one worth having.  Throughout my adult life, I have continued to examine faith, my own faith, our UU faith, being curious about the faith of others.

Maybe for some of you there is a similar story; a story of no longer being able to hold on to the faith of your childhood.  Maybe for you, your faith was shattered as illness or disability left you unable to do things you loved to do or that you assumed you would one day be able to do leaving you wondering you who are if you can no longer do these things.  Maybe it came as children grew up and left home and no longer needed you to be their parent in that day to day way and you had to find a new way to be a parent, to fill your days.  Maybe it came as jobs were lost or careers changed, leaving you with a sense of lost identity. Maybe it was the loss of a loved one whose absence left the world a lonely place. Living an authentic full life will mean that we will change, our faith will be shattered and we will have to begin again.  Not everyone can handle or make the journey; for some the shattering of their faith is something they cannot recover from.  Hopefully we do not make this journey alone but have trusted companions, spiritual practices, a faith community because others have traveled this journey before us and we don’t have to do it alone. I hope this community serves as a place to recover from doubt, from what might seem the ripping apart of our lives and our faith … a place for re-imagining and re-building that which grounds us and is most sacred to us.

Faith in something bigger than ourselves, call that God or to quote Adams “that which ultimately connects humans “ or “that which we should put our confidence in”  can ground our lives, give meaning.  It can inspire us to use our lives to heal and not to harm.  Unexamined faith, blindly accepted faith, faith that claims it is without doubt, can do great harm; can lead to judgment, to a disregard for those who do not share the person’s “faith.”  It can lead to forcing oneself into an uncritical belief in someone or something.  As Adams tells us in the reading, fascism was not just a party or political persuasion it was a religion - a system that demanded unexamined, uncritical faith. We know where this uncritical acceptance of faith led - it led to war, genocide, devastation to all of life.

What is it for you that is bigger than yourself?  What words would you use to describe it?  Maybe another way to ask is where do you find the holy, the sacred.  Do you find it in nature like some of the children did in our story?  Do you find it looking in the mirror or in the faces of others?  I know for me I see the face of God whenever I look into the eyes of my daughter, my spouse, all those I love.  Do you experience mystery but are you unsure to call it God?

Faith requires doubt – it requires us to doubt because when we get too certain about it, it ceases to be faith. Yet too much doubt and we are paralyzed, unable to take a stand, unable to act.  As Unitarian Universalists we embrace doubt.  We say “come, come, whoever you are”.  Come even though you don’t have it all figured out.  Yet we as UU’s have seen the paralyzing power of doubt; the endless debates and word crafting– writing beautiful words but never taking action.  Waiting for certainty, waiting to make sure everyone is on board.  Yet that kind of waiting, doubting is paralyzing – it is not the kind of doubt that leads to deeper faith, to enlargement – it simply leads to more doubt waiting for certainty; an assurance that we are right and won’t fail.  At some point we have to stop waiting, stop talking, and leap.  Yes we may get it wrong but that too can strengthen us, change us, transform us.  

So we need both faith and doubt; we need to know when we need to reign in the doubt so we can move forward, so we can take action.  We also need to know when we need to invite doubt in – to ask hard questions, to risk anxiety and loss of belief.  At times yes the doubt can overwhelm, the absence of faith will bring us to our knees and we won’t know if we will ever have faith in anything again.  Yet faith has a way of making its way back in, it will probably look different, feel different, it will probably be deeper, stronger.  It will be an examined faith, a tested faith.  We will get up off our knees and we will go on.  Hopefully we will take that next leap, trusting that “All will be well, all manner of thing will be well.”

May it be so!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

True Faith Requires Doubt Revisited

So it happens to be that the topic for my sermon this Sunday is Faith and Doubt so it is only appropriate that I repost this particular post from August 2010. Have a good Thursday!

I am continuing to read James Hollis Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life and in speaking of the spiritual life he talks about the importance of doubt.  With doubt each of us can begin to truly explore our own spiritual path, yet that doubt creates anxiety and our egos will seek to avoid anxiety at almost any cost.  If we can embrace ourselves, be at home with ourselves, Hollis tell us, then we know that we are never really alone.  He writes, "When we are alone, we are still with someone; we are with ourselves.  those who mange to find respect for themselves, who learn to dialogue with themselves, who find that their dreams and other such phenomena are communicating with them from some deeper place within them are not really alone." (Hollis, 221)

I have been reflecting on this in light of Unitarian Universalism.  One might say that a hallmark of Unitarian Universalism is doubt.  We question everything, priding ourselves on our lack of doctrine and creed.  We are faith community of seekers; our first source is the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.  Yet there is a rigidity, an absolutism in Unitarian Universalism that seems inconsistent with an embrace of doubt.  While rejecting the authority of any kind of scripture, tradition or religious authority, we can be rigid in our attitudes toward worship.  We often posses an attitude of superiority and be rather closed-minded when it comes to more embodied expressions of spirituality - preferring to stay in the region of the rational or the mind. 

Others have admonished us for our emphasis on reason to the exclusion of all else - James Luther Adams reminded us that we are not simply rational creatures.  Paul Rasor reminded us of this again in his Berry Street lecture in 2009 that our exclusive use of reason can be stumbling block or barrier to our aspirations to be a truly multicultural, multiracial faith community. 

Do we truly embrace doubt?  I am not sure we do. Hollis writes, "To bear the anxiety of doubt is to be led to openness; openness leads to revelation; revelation leads to discovery; discovery leads to enlargement." (Hollis, 220) We may reject traditional religion but I don't think we always truly embrace doubt. For to embrace doubt is to embrace an attitude of openness and curiosity - to discover the new.  We would be open to trying new things .. to truly seeking truth wherever it may be found.  At our best we do this.  We aspire to do this.  

It is why I continue to be a Unitarian Universalist.  I value being a part of a faith community that aspires to be open to on-going revelation; to seeking truth wherever found.  My hope is that we will learn to more deeply embrace doubt. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

We Who Are Weary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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