Monday, July 22, 2013

Shaking the Dust from My Feet

"... shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." 
Matthew 10:14 (NRSV)

So lately this particular phrase from the Gospel of Matthew has been ringing through me.  I have been actively working with this image as I seek to move on to what's next in my life.  In the passage, Jesus speaks the phrase to his disciples as he sends them forth into the world and it refers to those who do not welcome them or want to hear their message.  For me, however, the phrase has taken on a broader meaning.

Too often in life we end up stuck in a place, even a very good place, because we can't let go.  We have a hard time moving on even when either circumstances have required it or we actively worked to move on from a particular place or person.  Even when the experience has been positive, the lingering "dust" can hold us back from embracing where we are now or moving forward to a new place.

When leaving is painful or to some degree or another, not what we choose, the anger and bitterness can eat away like dust at our soul.  Dust can eat away things, obscure them and cover them up so we can no longer see what is underneath.  It reminds me of seeing the Sistine Chapel while they were cleaning "The Last Judgement" - the grime and dust of the years had muted the colors, obscured the picture.

When it was cleared away the results were dramatic and stunning.  In our lives as well if we don't shake off the dust, the memories become grimy and obscured but when we shake the dust off, we can see things more clearly, being more forgiving of ourselves and others, and we can move on with clarity.

It takes time to reach the place where we are ready to shake the dust from our feet.  We need to be ready to see events clearly - letting go of pain, anger, self-righteousness.  We need to be willing to own our part in both the success and failure, the pain and the joy.  We need to be willing to forgive both others and ourselves and move on.  It is a helpful and can even be cathartic for the body.  Lately when I have found myself brooding over past events, I have both said to myself "shake off the dust" and shaken my foot - making it an embodied ritual.

But, what about those places we leave joyfully without bad feeling?  When we know it is right and our leaving is a moment of both celebration and sadness.  I think it can still be hard when someone replaces us and they do it differently or if an event or project that you worked or were really vested in doesn't continue or transforms. It is so easy in this circumstance to somehow believe then that our efforts were not valued or that somehow it is a reflection on us and our our work.  The hardest lesson is that when we leave a place or a relationship, that place moves on without us.  On the one hand, we want that, we know that is what is good and healthy and yet our ego wants to believe we are irreplaceable and that the person or place just can't function without us.  It can be hard to hear that things have changed.  So we have to shake off the dust, acknowledge our contribution (or failing if need be) and wish them the best.  We need to move on and we have to let other places and people move on as well.

What people and events in your life continue to be "dust on your feet?"  What would you have to be willing to face to "shake the dust off?"  What are you fearful of losing if you shake the dust off?  What might manifest if you did so even though you are resistant?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon - What Job Searching Has Taught Me: We Don't Do It Alone

I preached this sermon this past Sunday, July 14, 2013 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of  the Rappahannock.

Reading:  "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
(This is a link to a video of her reading 3 of her poems.  "Wild Geese" is the second poem she reads.)

Good morning!  It is always such a pleasure to come and be with you to share worship.  My family and I thank you for your warm welcome!

I come this morning with a heavy heart with the verdict last night in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and I know that I am not alone.  I ask us to take a moment of silence to remember Trayvon, his family, his friends, his community.

This sermon comes from one of my blog posts.  I have been blogging off and on for a few years now. I have been blogging more regularly as part of my job search process.  While writing has always been something I enjoy doing, blogging regularly requires discipline, creativity and gives me a chance to think out loud with an unknown audience.  Job searching too requires discipline, creativity and provides the opportunity to reflect both on one’s self but also the larger world as I have been seeking how my particular gifts and skills can be lived out in service to the world.    One of my realizations over the past few months is that we don't accomplish much, particularly a job search, alone and yet we are told over and over again that we are supposed to do it alone.

There is a national mythology of the self-made person, the notion that we are each individually responsible for our success or our failure.  It is particularly prevalent when it comes to our politics and economics.  The message over and over again is that those who are wealthy got their wealth through hard work, playing by the rules and their own effort and if each of us just did what they did then we would be wealthy too.  The same goes for those struggling - if you are unemployed or poor or struggling, it is because you did not play by the rules, you did not work hard and you are solely responsible for your failure, we may on occasion offer a respite to those who suffer a severe medical disability but it better not be because of anything the person could have done differently - eat better, not smoke, not be an addict, etc.  We preach a heavy sermon of personal responsibility and with that goes this notion that we are solely responsible for lives.

 We can see it in our faith lives as well.  Many conservative evangelical communities emphasize salvation as something one earns by living a good life and following the rules (particularly the ones around sex) and that God will reward your efforts with heaven.  It might be that your prosperity in this life is a sign of God's favor - this notion dates back to the Puritans who wanted to know if you could tell who had been pre-determined to eternal salvation.  The focus is on the individual's behavior and relationship with God, specifically with Jesus - going to church is one of the rules - but in the end it is up to each person on their own to be saved.  Here the appeal is that if I play by the rules, even if life is hard, I will get rewarded and those who did not will be punished.   The scandal of Unitarianism in this context was the affirmation of the good of the human person and the scandal of Universalism that all would be saved – regardless of merit – thus challenging two prevailing theological assertions that human beings are sinful, unworthy of salvation and that to have any hope of salvation - one must earn it.

This notion is present in liberal communities as well - although it looks a little different.  Within Unitarian Universalism it shows up as the responsible search for truth and meaning and the notion that we are solely responsible for our spiritual search and journey.  Now on the one hand there is something very appealing about this - freed from the bonds of the rules that conservative faith communities may impose - we can each find the ways that work for us.  If it doesn't work for us, that's ok.  Yet this hyper individualism around faith means that if our own path isn't working for us, then we are the only ones responsible for that and if it is really working for us, then good job us!  Yet where in that is there room for humility, for submission, for other people, for the holy?  What is the point of community if we can all just do it on our own? Are our faith communities any more than places that are supposed to meet our own personal spiritual needs - so if I don't like the word God, or meditation, or earth-based spirituality or want no mention of the holy - my faith community needs to not talk about those things because otherwise I will leave because the journey is all about me.  It doesn't matter if God, earth-based spirituality or humanism works for someone else.  Hence often in liberal faith communities we settle for as much non-offensive language as possible - which often lacks depth.

Robert Bellah is his Ware Lecture in 1998 challenged us to reconsider this.  He outright rejected individualism on both sociological and theological grounds. He said, “If we are fundamentally relational creatures, as I think both biology and sociology affirm, then ontological individualism, religious or secular, is simply a mistake, but one with enormous cultural consequences with which Americans in particular will have to deal. … I am forthrightly asking: give up ontological individualism and affirm that human nature is fundamentally social.  That would mean making ‘the interdependent web of all existence’ the first of your principles and not the last.”   A strong challenge to us!

This tension between the individual and the good of all appeared early in American life and our Unitarian, particularly Transcendentalist  forebears, were in the midst of it. Emerson and others uplifted the nobleness of the solitary seeker, going to Walden Pond, the solitary search for meaning within and in nature.  Yet not all were sold, there was concern that this focus on the individual could not build the robust common good needed for young America.  In the book, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Leigh Eric Schmidt, points out that early objections to the Transcendentalists and their quest for the solitary spiritual journey suggested that they might be undermining a strong democracy and civil society.  Schmidt writes: “It was seen as one more solvent that corroded civil society and highlighted the danger of new democratic freedoms turning into self-loving vices. The American experiment with freedom and equality, Alexis de Tocqueville warned in his classic commentary Democracy in America (1835–1840), was begetting “a novel expression” of “individualism.” The new democracy, however robust, remained vulnerable; it seemed to throw each citizen “back forever upon himself alone” and “to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” From the vantage point of a fragile republic, solitude appeared the very antithesis of a religiously cohesive nation.”

Yet Unitarian Universalism at its best knows that while we may all be on an individual journey we need each other along the way.  We need the wisdom of well-worn paths that can show us the way - particularly if we wish to forge new ones or see new things along the old.  We need correction when our journey may become too self-centered, a little too much about me.  Community can push one past one's own comfort zone and into places where real transformation happens.  One of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism is that there is wisdom to be found in all the world's religions, if so then we are called, we are responsible for not just rejecting something out of hand - rather we called to learn, to listen, to see how it fits or not with our own understanding.  At our best we use a variety of religious and spiritual language to speak to the vast array of experience and wisdom available.  That is communal, it is an act of learning and leaning on one another. Our opening this morning expresses this beautifully and powerfully.

The reality is that we need each other; we are accountable to each other.  We are social beings.  We survive because we have formed groups, communities that mean we can work together for food, shelter, companionship, protection.  We need each other to make meaning and sense of the world.  This has not changed even though our societies are complex and our reliance on each other may not be obvious.

As Bellah drove home in his lecture, we some times see this need for each other as seen as a bad thing.  We see it as being needy or dependent – not as an expression of our interdependence – an expression of our fundamental reality of being social beings.  We are proud when our toddlers insist on doing it themselves (except those things that will make a big mess).  We are dismayed that our young adults are moving home rather than out to live on their own.  We eschew common living for individual homes.  Asking for help is seen as shameful or less than.  Our systems are set up to reward individual achievement or so it seems.  For underneath it all, there is a network that the powerful remain so by hiring their own, passing wealth on to their own and even among those not so privileged there is a sticking to who you know versus who you do not.  So when we need help, or we can't do it on our own, we are filled with angst, feelings of failure.

At its worst, this isolation and individualism leads to the tragic death of a young man as we saw in Florida. Being isolated and alone, we fear the other.  There is no trust, no assumption of best intention, only fear which leads to violence.

It is also why it is such a big deal when someone is the first to do something, the first African American President, the first women senator, the first openly gay congressperson.  We know now that the way has been paved for others – that ‘first one’ can open the door for others.  Yet still the message that we do it on our own, we are on our own is the story told.  So when we ask for help we can sometimes feel like we are imposing, we don't want to bother people.

One of the hardest things I battle in my job search is reaching out to people I know.  I don't want to bother them.  Yet every single job search book will tell you that it is by reaching out to those you know, by telling people what you are looking for, by asking for their assistance with an introduction or keeping their eye out for possible positions is the best way to find a job. It is not scouring job sites, newspaper ads or filling out endless on-line job applications.  So despite all the messages about being self-made people, about doing it all on our own, the single most effective way to find a job is to do what we are told not to do by the culture all the time - we need to reach out, connect with others and be willing to ask for their assistance.

So everyday I have to battle with my fear of reaching out to others and being a bother, a nuisance.  I have to recognize every day that I need other people, that I don't have all the resources on my own. The gift is that when I do reach out, I have found people willing and even eager to help.  I have been met with such positive feedback.  It is always a surprise, always a wonderful gift.

We are connected beings.  We need each other and we actually like helping each other out - there is a gift in giving.  Yet when we focus so much on having to do it on our own, that it is somehow cheating if we get help, it can be a struggle to let people help, to ask for help.  We have a hard time receiving gratefully and gracefully.

Yet as Mary Oliver invites us in her poem – “tell me about despair, yours, and  I will tell you mine” – we can share our struggles, we are not alone “the wild geese call to us  announcing  our place in the family of things.”  We don’t do this alone – we are part of something much larger than ourselves.

What might this look like for our faith communities?  Can we be places where we learn to ask for, give and receive help?  Can we affirm the individual holding the paradox that we don’t do it alone?  That we need each other?  Can we both encourage and challenge each other on the journey?

At our best we practice this and yet we can do it better.   We can choose to make it a practice in our communities.  We can speak the truth that we are connected, that we need each other.  In doing so, we discover the joy of giving and receiving. We can practice the love that casts out fear.  We can answer the call of the wild geese, calling over and over, announcing our place in the family of things.

I close our service today with one of my favorite UU Benedictions by the Rev. Wayne Arnason:

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path
  is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage,
For deep down, there is another
you are not alone.

Blessed Be!
May it be so!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Scandal of Universalism: You Can't Earn It

First my thanks to Scott Varney for the new look for my blog!  I love the new layout and colors. More changes will be coming with additional pages for things like audio files of workshops I have done and video files of sermons and stories.   Scott is also a great musician and if you are here in Williamsburg, VA area I encourage you to check out his performances.  Here is his music site.

So I have been thinking about and doing some reading about Universalism lately.  Rachel Held Evans is doing a Universalist series on her blog.  My thoughts about it came to me in the midst of a couple of recent conversations.  I was talking about my job search and the networking I was doing and the comment was made to me "Well, it isn't about who you know; you have to get the jobs on your merit."  I think the comment was a bit naive and yet it also reflects a deeply held American value of individual achievement and that it is merit that makes the difference.

First, we are steeped in this myth of merit and individual achievement.  As I wrote about in my post on What Job Searching Has Taught Me, all the job search advice will tell you that the number one thing to focus on for a successful job search is networking, finding out who knows someone who works where you want to work and connect with them.  Most jobs are found through networks.  So it isn't just about merit and sometimes it is not about merit at all, at least not in a particular field or industry. Many of us have worked with or encountered people who are not qualified for the job they are doing but they got the job because they knew someone.

It is the way that racism, sexism and all the other isms are perpetuated.  Those with privilege have access to make connections through school, family, work or community that others do not. It is why women have worked so hard to get access to men's only establishments.  It is through these connections that people get into positions of leadership and power.

The myth of meritocracy is one that privileges the most privileged among us.  One of the most important pieces of work that I have personally had to do is understanding that my "normal," my expectations of how the world works and the access people have to education, jobs and the political process is not universal.  I pointed this out in my post on voting - I have never questioned that I have the right to walk into a polling center and cast my vote without being questioned, without having to prove my worthiness to be there.  As a white person in this culture this is my normal, it is my world view.  I don't get followed in stores.

So what does all this have to do with Universalism?  Universalism is still a very controversial issue in religion, in Christianity in particular.  People and institutions remain very attached to the belief that the "good" will get their reward in heaven and the "bad" will be punished.  We want that sense of justice - it may not happen in this life but in the next one "I" will get "mine" and "they" will get what "they" "deserve."  Usually the opposition to Universalism is justified with Scripture, many (not all) Christians believe that only Christians are saved - that one must be a Christian to be saved.  At the heart of most of this is a belief that heaven, that salvation is something we earn.  The scandal of faith, the scandal of Jesus' life and message is that we can't earn it.

At the core of Universalism is that all, every person regardless of merit, status, religion will be gathered into salvation - that all will go to heaven if you will.  Much like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights it declares that salvation, like rights, comes simply because we are human.  In the case of humanity, salvation is assured because God, the Holy, loves human beings.  I became convinced of Universalism by about the age of fourteen.  I could not reconcile the notion of a loving God, who I was taught wanted nothing more than to be in relationship with us, with a notion that that same God would damn people to eternal torment and punishment.  I finally just came to the place that God's love would keep reaching and keep giving chances until all were reconciled.  As I look at the life of Jesus, his message over and over again is that we are loved unconditionally by God.  God is faithful, God keeps covenant even when God's people break it over and over again.  A reading through the Hebrew Scriptures shows this unconditional love, the reaching, calling, pleading to turn back, to be in relationship, to practice justice and mercy.  In the Jewish tradition God saves a people - not just individuals, but God loves the people and keeps reaching out to them.  They can't earn it, in fact they fail miserably at earning it.  Yet God through the midst of it, remains faithful.  Jesus doesn't ask those he heals if they have earned it, he just heals them.  His message to the Pharisees is not that they are wrong for following the law - their mistake comes from thinking that they can earn it - that they are better than others because of the way they follow the law.

For those religions that believe in reincarnation, the point of life is to learn. It is continually to be learning how to better live.  The point is not that we earn it - it is that we can learn, we can do better.  Yet in reincarnation is the belief that you don't earn that second, third or hundredth chance, it is that those chances will continue to be given to you - unearned.

This makes us uncomfortable!  We want to earn things - we like the notion of "deserving."  We talk about the "deserving poor" which of course tells us there are "undeserving poor."  We want to have earned our degrees, our jobs, even our good health - well at the very least we are responsible when we have bad health it must be our fault particularly if we have things like Type II diabetes or lung cancer.  We want to believe   that life is fair, that the good always get their reward and the bad get punished.  Politicians love to use the phrase, "If you work hard and play by the rules, then you should expect to have" health care or marriage equality or success and access. Unfortunately, those who work the hardest are not always rewarded and sometimes those who have the most material success do not play by the rules or even work all that hard. The scandalous message of universalism is none of us can earn it - it is a gift, a freely given gift.  This gift is not one that we have to wait until we die to recognize - it is here now.  God's love and grace are present here.  The scandalous message is that we are truly called to be just, merciful and loving to all - regardless of merit. This message calls all of us to see the merit in every person, to cultivate the unique gifts of every person.

Where in your life do you experience the scandal of universalism?  Does the notion that we don't earn many of the things we believe we do offend you? Surprise you?  If we let go of the myth of merit how would life be different?  How would you live differently?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Living in Liminal Space

Since leaving my position in March I have been in an in-between or liminal space.  Liminal comes from the Latin word limen which means threshold and it is defined as of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : in-between, transitional (from Websters).  This of course makes perfect sense yet it is not an easy place to be. In fact, Richard Rohr in his book, which I am currently reading, Everything Belongs, states that most of us will do anything to get out of liminal space as quickly as possible.

At first I embraced this liminal space, looking forward to having time to delve inward and embark on new possibilities.  As it has gone on, I more and more long to be out of this space and into what is next.  It is frustrating to say the least.

I have taken three conversation partners with me into this liminal space.  Richard Rohr is the most recent partner and the other two are Nancy Bieber, author of Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment and Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  They are great partners.  They echo and support each other.  They let me know that there is no rushing the authentic self, that this liminal space will continue until the authentic self is allowed to come forth. All offer ways to invite and embrace the journey.

I have struggled in this space as things around me seem to keep moving on.  The interim will start in my old position in just a couple of weeks.  Another person I know just started a new job.  Others have recently left their jobs to enter into this world of liminal space.  I seem somehow stuck here despite my initial embrace of the journey.

Most recently I have struggled to keep up with this blog, feeling like I wasn't sure what to say next.  My job search has felt stalled as it does not seem that my efforts are producing much result.  In the midst of all this holding onto faith and hope are a struggle.

Recently I was on a Georgetown Alumni webinar with Rev. Kevin O'Brien, Vice President of Mission and Ministry at Georgetown.  He talked about hope as "everything may not turn out alright but it is ok because God, the Holy, is with us anyway."  This is hard to hear - I want an assurance that things will turn out alright and by that I mean alright by my definition, financial security, work that I love and that I am good at, sooner rather than later.  Also with my family's financial well being counting on me there is another level of worry.  We are truly not promised that things will turn out the way we hope, just that through it all we are not alone, that in the ultimate sense, "All will be well" (Julian of Norwich).  This kind of hope is the one that sustains justice movements, kept people building cathedrals that they would never see complete.  It is hope not bounded in space and in time.

Parker Palmer reminds me that our job is "to ride the monsters all the way down" to the place where we can truly learn to care for one another, the place of community, a place where we live knowing ourselves - for good and for ill.  Have I ridden the monsters all the way down?

Nancy Bieber makes a distinction that I have written about previously - about willingness versus willfulness.  Am I truly open and willing to go where I am called?  Am I truly opening myself to the will of the holy?

I don't have clear answers.  Clearly since I am still here, there is something it still needs to teach me, something I need to learn.

Are you in a liminal space?  What keeps you going?  Who are your conversation partners?