Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Myth of You Can Do Anything You Want

For today's Throwback Thursday Blog post I am going back to this piece I wrote in April 2014. I want to focus on the fact that many of us who grow up in educated middle class and upper middle class homes are told "you can do anything."  My parents and many others today want our children to believe they can do anything, be anything and that they are assured to be successful. Yet the reality is that we each come into this world with particular gifts and particular challenges.  Some of us have great verbal skills, love to write, some are great at math and have never found a number we don't like, others are gifted at art, listening, taking things apart and putting them back together.  However, none of us is good at all of those things.  I have many gifts but if you ask me to hit a baseball, sing professionally or fix my car I will fail.  Telling people they can "do anything" is simply false and overwhelming.

So as I am once again actively job hunting and looking at a major career change, I know that I can't do anything. I know I have gifts of teaching, facilitating, leading a team, organizing projects, writing, social media, and public speaking.  I will be looking to how to put those skills to work. The question right now for me is where can I use those gifts?  I am looking to use them in a very different field - maybe education or technology.  I am looking to do something new and to use my gifts in new places.  My task is to take my skills and find new ways and places to use them.

So what are your gifts?  How do you know what can and cannot do? What type of person are you and therefore what kind of work best suits you?  How do you know?

Scarcity and Abundance; Dreams and Reality: A Midlife Reflection

Over the past year, I have been doing a lot of reflection on scarcity and abundance, doing what I love and doing what I have to do.  Can I make money doing the things I am good at doing, the things my education and experience have shaped me to do?  I think this article from December 2013 captures well some of my own feelings and reflections.  The article discusses the choice made by two people out of college - one to pursue calling and one to pursue money.  I want to believe that we can have both and yet my experience is that I choose calling and have followed calling and yet the result of that has been a constant struggle financially.  Now I want to be financially stable, I want a few nice things in life.  I want to provide a life of financial security for my family. So I find myself asking the question how do I make money given my education and work history.

I have also been reflecting on the experience of scarcity, both real and imagined.  Over the past year I have experienced real moments of scarcity.  Real moments of how am I going to survive this?  All the things about short term thinking, making short term decisions without looking at the long haul are true.  Yet the culture assumes that if we change the thinking we will change the circumstances. So we think the poor make poor choices so let's have them make different choices.  Yet if we have done nothing to address their scarcity, the very real reality of scarcity in their lives, the very real lack of options and choices then all they are left with is making decisions to get through the current moment.  If there is not enough money for rent and food, there also won't be any money to save. Telling a poor person "to pay themselves first" a common piece of advice from financial gurus is ridiculous.  Saving cannot be the priority when food and shelter are at risk.  When you live with scarcity and survival mode long enough, it just becomes your default even if the situation doesn't warrant it.

So what about dreams and doing what you love.  I think this article capture well the falseness of these claims.  We can't all do what we love and sometimes dreams die.  I know I was raised with the belief that I could do whatever I want.  No I couldn't and as I get older the options for what I can do become even fewer. I have made choices, some beautiful and amazing choices that I wouldn't change for the world, and some that I might like an opportunity to do differently yet for better or for worse they are the choices I have made.  The questions now are what are my options, given my life circumstances, my skills, my education and from that what can I create.

Some have followed all the rules, did all the right things and are now among the used to haves.  How many used to haves are in our faith communities?  How many are hiding in plain site among us? We don't talk much about these people. College educated, corporate experience that are now discarded, barely making it.  We talk about the 1% and we talk about the poor.  What about these people?  As a white educated person from an upper middle class upbringing, their stories scare me the most.  This isn't supposed to happen to people like me.  Are they hiding in our UU congregations?  Do they include our ministers or religious educators?  Do we know their stories? Is shame and anger keeping them away?  They too live with scarcity coupled with the knowledge that they once had abundance - maybe not 1% abundance but abundance.

What are your experiences of scarcity and abundance?  What dreams have you had to let die?  How did you move forward?  Do you know a story of "used to have"?   Which roommate are you - looking for meaning in mid-life or looking for financial security? 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Good Enough

I recently read this article on The Power of 'Good Enough' in The Atlantic.  I am a perfectionist and often find myself surrounded by other perfectionists. Certainly I was raised in a home that far too often taught that I must be perfect - perfect grades, perfect behavior, perfect perfect perfect.  I learned early that anything less, any mistake was all my fault and that I should have somehow known better. Learning was not a process of making mistakes but rather knowing the right answer, every single time.  Now in fairness to my parents, they too are perfectionists raised by parents who also taught them that they had to be perfect, had to measure up, had to meet their expectations. I know that for my mother, her mother's amazing, ceiling breaking career instead of inspiring her gave her a sense of not measuring up and for my father, failing to make real his mother's expectation that he become a doctor resulted in a man who again never measured up, never quite made it. So the concept of "Good Enough" is truly foreign to me in some ways.

On the one hand it makes perfect sense (yes that pun was intended!) that we have to make choices and that most of the time good enough is enough, probably even more than enough.  After all there is no perfect mate, perfect marriage, perfect career, perfect faith.  Most of life, and certainly the most important things life are messy and imperfect.  Yet how many of us are plagued by the disease of perfection?  I know in my religious circle of Unitarian Universalists we are a people of perfection. For all our embracing of a diversity of faith, we are communities of professionals - academics, doctors, lawyers, community leaders and with that comes a sense of high expectation and we are not very good at learning to embrace mistakes.  I remember once in a UU setting someone posted a disparaging joke in an email, without the intention to do harm but the impact was immediate.  There was an immediate and swift response to the email that included statements that they didn't know if they could be in a community where such things were posted. My response to this whole situation was to know that I could never make a mistake within that context for fear that repercussions would be fast and furious. Again the expectation in some places is that our anti-oppression work must be perfect.

So one of the things I realized as I read this post is that I have been paralyzed by thinking that there is this one perfect job or career out there - the one that will use my gifts and skills and pay me well and that I will enjoy and oh that is my calling. Oh no pressure there!  I have written repeatedly on this blog about vocation and really wrestling to listen to my life, to realize that maybe the Holy is less concerned with the specific job or career and more concerned that I take my whole, deep authentic self to the work - whatever it is.  I wrestle over and over again with this idea that there is a job out there that I am supposed to have and be doing and that I just have not found it yet.  I know that I have found a number of jobs that don't work, or no longer work.  Oh and that is the other thing I wrestle with - that once I find this ideal job or career I am supposed to stay in forever, it is supposed to be the perfect thing forever.  What if it is really ok that each job or career has been the right job or choice for that period of time but now it is time for something different, something new because I am different, I have not remained the same.

What would it mean to have a good enough job?  What is the job that is good enough for now?  What is most important to me at this stage of my life?  I know that we want to be settled into a location for the long term and we have decided that place will be Richmond, Virginia.  I know I want a job that will support the three of us and that we stop living on the edge financially.  I know I want time to pursue things like forming a Georgetown Alumni Club in Richmond (there is no Alumni club anywhere in Virginia - what is up with that?!). I want to join a book club.  I want to take yoga and work out.  I want to cultivate friends and community.

So what is this good enough job?  I know that I am an excellent teacher, facilitator, program creator and director, writer and speaker.  I know that I love technology and love learning new technology.  I love the ways social media and technology connect us around the world.  I am working with a start up Maker Space and one of the reasons this excites me is that it is about bringing people together to create and learn together - learning that involves mistakes, learning through finding out what doesn't work. That is exciting to me!

So I am working on embracing a good enough job and wondering what might happen if I open myself to all sorts of possibility. What if I can really learn to let go of perfection?  What if I can free myself from the pressure and restrictions that the quest for perfection brings with it?  Because the reality is that perfection is paralyzing.  I get so worried about getting it wrong, or being found to be less than that I put things off, don't put myself out there, become highly self-conscious.  In my quest to be perfect and not get anything wrong, I put my light under basket.

So maybe my true calling is to discover the gift of "good enough." And maybe, in finding the position that is 'good enough' ... I will find myself being proud of the work I do, my gifts being useful and my personal life more fulfilling. Perhaps, then my light can really shine brightly.

What do you think?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Renewing Our Generosity

I preached this sermon on Sunday March 15, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Story:  Snake Alley Band by Elizabeth Nygaard

Reading: Reading: from Ministry and Money by Dan Hotchkiss Quote from Clinton Lee Scott, 20th Century Universalist

And it came to pass that the time of the year was upon them when the call went forth from the Great Temple for pledges of support for another twelvemonth.  And one there was who rebuked the solicitor gruffly saying “Get thee hence, and return not.  Verily, the Great Temple seeketh money from everlasting to everlasting.” The solicitor accepted the rebuff and said unto him quietly.  “My son, when he was a child, was very costly.  He was forever hungry, and was fed; he was forever wearing out or outgrowing his raiment and was clothed anew.  As he increased in stature of manhood, ever more money had I need to spend upon him. And it came to pass that the Angel of Death smote him, and he died. And lo! Now he costeth me not a cent!” And he who had rebuked him was filled with compassion and understanding, and he said “Verily, verily thou hast opened my eyes; for now I see that only a dead Temple needeth no money; a live Temple need ever more!” And he offered up his pledge….a sadder but wiser man.

Renewing Our Generosity

Today we begin with joy!  Your search committee has worked hard and diligently and in about a month you will get to meet and decide on the candidate they have chosen.  I know David and I am excited for you.  What a wonderful way to begin your pledge season … with the inspiration of a new ministry, a new chapter in the life of UUCOB. Today we to ask you to make or renew your financial commitment to this faith community as you imagine this new chapter.

UUCOB is a living faith community and in part its vitality depends on the generosity of its people. Often in our Unitarian Universalist congregations we are reluctant to talk about money, finding someone to run the pledge drive is as difficult as it is to find someone to serve on the Board. It feels somehow unpleasant. Yet at its core the pledge drive is about reminding people about why this community is important to them, inspiring them to want to see it thrive and sharing a message of good news that yes this place, this community is worth our time and treasure.

In our story today the small snake just wants his snake band. He doesn't want the cricket, frog, bird, turtle or anyone else.  Of course he woke up and found all his friends gone – how frightening!  He was looking for that comfortable familiar place to call home. Of course along the journey he is transformed even as he turns away from those who wish to join him.  Over the years here at UUCOB members and friends have come and gone and this community continues to change, to diversify to welcome new people.  Here you know that you need the snake, the cricket, the bird, the fish, the turtle. Our unique gifts make this community what it is and what it is becoming.  Yet there is also a core and anchor – the familiar touchstones – the chalice, music, worship on Sunday and this building. While faith communities are made up people and that truly is the core – the material things and places make it possible for this community to gather, provide a familiar place, and anchor UUCOB in its unique and beautiful location of the Outer Banks.

In our opening song this morning we sang the words “Body and spirit united once more.” Today is about body and spirit.  While we may prefer the spiritual aspects of our faith community and to give less attention to the body, our Unitarian Universalists faith affirms that both are important.  We focus our attention and our energy on transforming this world – making this world better for everyone – creating heaven if you will here on earth. Like James Luther Adams we affirm the importance of the free, covenantal faith community which works to transform our selves and the world.  When we ask you today to affirm and re-affirm, we are asking you to pay attention to the body of the community – to this building, to your next minister, to meet the physical needs that keep this community going and thriving.

In this season of renewal, this congregation finds itself on the threshold of a new chapter.  In about a month David will come here and spend about a week with you. You will have a chance to get to know him and he will meet more of you.  Then you will decide as a community whether to call him as your minister and thus beginning another chapter in your lives together.  That chapter needs many things, your presence here, your contributions of time and yes your contributions of money.  When we began this journey of search together, I heard many of you express fear and doubt about finding a fit and during the process it has sometimes been challenging as UUA resources are limited for part-time ministries but together we kept at it. I told you when we started this journey together that you had much to offer and that the right person would see those gifts if only you believed in those gifts, in the abundance of this place and you committed yourselves to the process of search.  Now as the search has brought you a candidate,  I say to you again ... if you believe in the abundance of this place, if you really commit yourselves to reaching further … then you can also meet, perhaps even exceed your financial goals. Would it not be wonderful to begin this new year with the right settled minister and the resources to sustain the ministry that you will do together?

When I arrived here just over a year ago, a beloved minister had left and you had been without a minister for about six months. The relief at having me here was palpable.  You have been open to new ideas, to learning, to change.  You have been doing the needed work to lay a foundation for the next chapter in this community’s life. Another piece of the foundation is to provide a strong financial base to support the work, to continue to try new things and to enter into relationship with a new minister.

So today, on this day of good news, at the near start of spring, consider what this community means to you, to others and to the larger community of the Outer Banks.  What would be missing here on these islands without this vibrant voice of liberal religion?  This is your opportunity to reflect and renew your commitment to this place, these people and to this community.

I invite you to generously give to the future of this place and its ministries.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Revisiting the Problem of Born This Way

So last week Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, state on CNN that being gay is a choice and that those who are sent to prison and then "come out gay" are proof of that.  There are many ways to refute and argue with Ben Carson but what came to mind for me was the problem with the "it is not a choice, born this way" argument.  While it is effective on moving the middle, it is also problematic leading to questions such as "does it need a cure" and that being heterosexual is preferable.  So I thought in light of Ben Carson it is time again to revisit my 2013 post The Problem with "Born This Way."

Maybe our Human Rights should not depend on questions of biological traits, after all religion is a chosen aspect of our lives and we vigorously defend the right to worship as we choose to or not do so at all.

The Problem with "Born this Way"

Now please don't get me wrong, I love Lady Gaga and the song "Born this Way." (don't worry this is a lyrics only video)  I know that "Born this Way" is very persuasive to the movable middle and that is why groups like PFLAG and HRC use it.  I also know for many individuals that literally knowing that their children were "born this way" allowed those parents to love and accept those children for who they are.  Parental love is strong and powerful, parental acceptance can be harder won as Andrew Solomon so eloquently expresses in his TED talk.

If we are born this way, then we didn't choose to be this way (because after all no one would choose the horrible life of being born gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender) and therefore you must love us or at least not deny our basic human rights - you know like to work, to be free from violence and keeping a job.  After all, God might just forgive us if we are born this way and then we might just be allowed in our faith communities - maybe even they will ordain us (particularly if we opt to be single and chaste) or if they are really progressive they will not require celibacy for ordination and will welcome our partners and families.

Well I don't buy it.

Now this is not to say the sexual orientation and gender identity are choices or that people are not "born that way." The problem with the argument "born this way" is that somehow then it is a less than - less than the ideal of heterosexual, less than the ideal of female or male.  Somehow if you are "born this way" then your parents have to love you because "you can't help it." I think as those who are people of color, women and people with disabilities will express - simply because one is "born this way" does not lead the way to tolerance, acceptance or even basic human rights.

The other dark side of "born this way" and the quest for scientific evidence to prove what LGBTQ people have been telling us for years is what will be done with this knowledge.  Do we think that if we discovered the "gay" gene or the "trans" gene that somehow there will be rejoicing throughout the land and that parents will welcome their "gay" or "trans" baby with open arms from day one?  Well apparently PFLAG does based on their latest ad campaign in Australia.  I think not.  What would actually happen in that room is that after being told they are having a lesbian they would be asked if they want to terminate the pregnancy or if we get really advanced, if they would like to undergo treatment to "cure" their child of being "lesbian."

Think I am being over the top and using scare tactics?  There is already at least one evangelical minister out there who has said that pre-natal hormonal treatment to "cure" gayness is permissible and another who said that Christians would be obligated to accept a "gay cure."  So while activists may believe that the discovery of the biological basis of sexual orientation  would lead to greater tolerance and acceptance in reality there would be a quest to "cure" children of the horrible disease of being gay, lesbian or bisexual.  How long before the obligation would move beyond "Christians" to everyone?  For the record, I do not have a disease and I do not need or want a "cure"!

To use a pop culture analogy let's look at the movie X-Men: The Last Stand. In the movie a cure has been found to treat the mutants.  Far from being celebrated for being born with extraordinary gifts and powers, mutants are feared, hated and often forced to live underground.  Now that a cure has been found, the "benevolent" government offers it to all mutants - in fact demands it.  What would happen to those of us who are LGBTQ if we refused the "cure" offered by our "benevolent" society? Would we too be hunted down and forced to take the cure?

Being LGBTQ is not a curse, it is not a birth defect.  It is a gift.  It is a gift that yes we are born with and should be celebrated.  I think it is pretty clear if we look around at creation that life desires diversity.  Being LGBTQ is part of the  amazing diversity that is life!  It is the recognition of and celebration of being LGBTQ that is the "cure" to what is wrong.  What is wrong is hatred, prejudice, and violence against LGBTQ persons. What is wrong is losing your job!  What is wrong is being subjected to violence!  What is wrong is how LGTBQ people are viewed and treated - not being LGBTQ!

In this month of Pride let's celebrate being LGBTQ!  Let's celebrate the right to be different, the right to be ourselves, the right to be proud of who and what we are!

or to say it as Andrew Solomon did:
Let Us Love No Matter What
Happy Pride!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hope: Waiting for Renewal

I preached this sermon on Sunday March 8, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the
Outer Banks.

Story: Saving Spring, A Scandinavian Tale
Reading: Tested by Fire by Parker Palmer

This has been a long, very cold winter here and up and down the East Coast.  I know for myself I have been counting down the days to spring.  It has been dark and bitterly cold.

This weekend also commemorates the Marches in Selma in which people were beaten and killed as they demanded full voting rights for African Americans.  In the midst of dark days, with fire hoses, police brutality and the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson just days before not to mention many other martyrs prior to that, victory and hope must have seemed very bleak on that Bloody Sunday. How is it that we hold onto hope in the midst of a long dark winter, in the midst of trial and tribulation?

In our story it was through remembering of spring, the remembering of their humanity, being reminded of their humanity that those who had journeyed from many villages to rescue spring.  It was through working together, that the animals were able to reach spring and free her.  Greta figures out that by showing the transformed humans their names, they remembered who they were. They needed someone outside themselves to remind them.  The Civil Rights movement was a movement  – one person did not own the movement, there was not just one leader but many leaders.   Those leaders kept reaching out, calling out to others to join them.  Others answered that call from all over the country – young and old, black and white.

In the civil rights movement it was only through a commitment to non-violence, to holding onto their own humanity in the midst of those who would take it away that they could undertake the hard work of change. Nelson Mandela chose to hold onto hope, let go of bitterness during his long imprisonment.  Yet he could not have done that alone.  His connections to families and community on the outside, a vision of a transformed South Africa kept him grounded, kept his hope alive. He did not hold that vision alone, he did not do that alone.

It is not through words alone that hope is sustained.  Music has been and is a powerful source of hope.  The songs of the civil rights movement kept spirits and hope alive.  Those who sang as they sat in prison cells, in marches, on the street kept fear at bay and hope alive.  Songs of hope, songs of justice – the simple words like "We Shall Overcome Someday" or "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round".

We need each other – we need reminding of who we are.  Rep. Lewis reminds us that people can change – he repeats it to himself – people can change. If we lose our belief in the capacity of people to change, in our own ability to change, to adapt or if we refuse to change, refuse to adapt – then hope is lost, we stay stuck in the darkness

The seasons remind us that life is about change and transformation. The seasons are constantly in flux; no two springs are alike or winters.  Nature shows us that diversity, change, adaptation are essential to life.  Nature shows us that darkness, the harsh, hard seasons are essential to the re-birth of spring.  We need times of action, of birth and rebirth, we also need times of rest, to let things lie fallow.

We often resist change, we fight it. When things are going well we want them to stay that way forever.  Even in the midst of hard times sometimes people would rather stay where they are than change.  In Parker Palmer’s story of depression, he admits that to stay in the grey of depression had a certain appeal, to simply stay where he was and not do the work necessary to choose life. Throughout history including the civil rights movement, there have been those who have not joined the fight for change, who choose not to rock the boat, to play it safe – to keep their heads down and just keep going.  It is important to recognize that too is a choice.  Not everyone in the villages volunteered to go rescue spring and in fact in our story only Oscar  answered the call in his village. Even as the villagers sent him off, there was a great deal of doubt if they would ever see him again. Hope is about taking that step, seeing the light in the darkness even when there is no evidence, no assurance of a positive outcome. There was not just one attempt at marching from Selma to Montgomery, there were many, determined and filled with hope, the people kept coming and kept marching even when it seemed that all the odds were against them.

Now all around us the signs of spring are coming.  Our one really warm day this past week, renewed hope in me at least, that yes winter is ending and spring is on her way even though we plunged back into below freezing temperatures the next day.  Today as the sun rises and we change our clocks, we will  see more clearly the lengthening of days. As mild temperatures – particularly compared to those earlier this year abound – give us concrete signs that spring is on its way.  In my yard, the tips of bulbs have broken through showing that flowers and greenery are on their way.

It was fascinating as I was working at Food Lion yesterday the different reactions to the weather. Some embraced the warmer weather, the sun even though it may not be as warm as they would like were excited and getting outside. For others they looked ahead and saw rain in the forecast and focused on the idea that the beauty of yesterday and today may not stick around.  Even with signs of spring all around, people were cautious and reserved about counting on it too much.

Some voices might say that it is no surprise that once again voting rights and full civil rights are still in question, still in doubt. That the system of racism still has hold and is still determined to remain in place.  Yes in many ways that is true – the march continues, as President Obama says, and yet we are not where we started.

Hope requires imagination and seeing with new eyes. As Desmond Tutu tells us in our quote it is about finding the light even in the darkness. It is remembering and imaging spring in the midst of winter.  It is John Lewis holding onto and continuing to hold onto a vision of what could be. Lewis said yesterday at the commemoration that if you had told him 50 years ago that he would be in Selma introducing the first African American president he would have said they were crazy.  Hope does not demand that we see the future – it simply means we consider other possibilities than what is now.