Friday, November 25, 2016

A New Chapter

When I was finishing my Masters Degree, I had a theme song for my synthesis paper - Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield.  It wasn't just that it was ironic, but as I was writing my paper the line "Staring at the blank page before you; Open up the dirty window; Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find"  I saw my paper as putting down the words and thoughts that I could not find somewhere else.

Today, a different line calls out to me: "Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten." Well maybe not a whole new book begins but certainly a new chapter is starting and for it to begin, I must close the door on the previous one. I have been slowly, a piece at a time, been writing the last words of this chapter.  Sometimes with eagerness, sometimes with anger, and sadness and certainly some trepidation as the next chapter opens with a blank page waiting to be filled.

As I was getting ready to leave the Outer Banks, I wrote a blog post called "We are Called Unto Life" and in it I wrote, "What I have learned is that I want a life, a full life, a complete life.  I want it filled with people and community.  I feel like over time I made myself smaller, shrank my world down and now I want to burst forth and explore the world." The title of the blog comes from the evening prayer in the Reform Siddur, Mishkan T'filah,

Over the last year and half, I have struggled to shed the image of myself as minister. This was not about not valuing that work, it is about needing to be seen as more than that, that my skills and experience were transferable to other professions. In addition to what I have needed professionally, I was finally free to explore Judaism.  I was no longer serving a congregation, there was no one to question me about my "loyalty."  When I left the Outer Banks I said that there were three things I wanted to do: explore Judaism, start a Georgetown alumni club and join a book group.  So I have been working on the first two but have yet to find a book group that speaks to me.

Over this year and a half I have been attending Congregation Or Ami, one of the two reform synagogues here in Richmond. I have taken two classes Introduction to Judaism and Introduction to Hebrew.  I have attended the High Holy Days services for the last two years and Shabbat on a fairly regular basis.  This year I also accepted a position teaching the 8th grade in the religious school. During this same time I have I had a foot in both worlds - remaining in the fellowship process within Unitarian Universalism and attending and participating at Or Ami.  It is time to stop having my feet in two places.  For many years now, I lived my life in the betwixt and between - not fully a minister, not solely a religious educator, identifying as a UU and attending a Reform Synagogue.  There is a value to letting yourself living in the liminal spaces and at some point one steps out of it, placing oneself in one place and hence a new chapter is beginning.

I have finally chosen where I want to be.  This past week I officially withdrew as a candidate for ministry within Unitarian Universalism.  I had already removed myself from various UU groups and pages on  Facebook. Secondly, I met with Rabbi Ahuva from Or Ami and I have asked to formally join and to start the conversion process.  One of the hard things I am giving up is guest preaching for UU Congregations.  I will preach one last time at UU Congregation of the Rappahannock on Christmas Day.  The title for the sermon is "A Jewish Family: Joseph, Mary and Jesus."  I have to say realizing that I would have to give up preaching has been hard to swallow.  I know when Rabbi Ahuva said that to me I felt a bit punched in the gut.

As I have thought about it though it makes sense, not just because of my desire to convert but because it is time to fully close this chapter and guest preaching is part of it.  I am also re-thinking about what I have here on my blog about what I do and I have taken down my wedding officiant Facebook page.  All of this is about deciding where I want to be, what I want to be and to do that I can't hang on to pieces of the past that no longer fit.  Yes I love preaching and the reason I love it is because for me it is about teaching.  The identity that I want to shine out even brighter is that of teacher.

Professionally working as an Adjunct and an instructor at Or Ami, has put new life into my working life. Maybe, just maybe I will finally find that full time job outside of a congregation that I have been searching for.  Maybe I will now be seen as an educator, a person passionate about the power of education capable of teaching, coaching, directing and creating programs.  That is my hope.  When I first got to Richmond I remember a conversation I had with a staffing agency that I just looked like a minister and that I would want to go back there.  I bristled and I have to say I have revised my resume, my cover letters, my LinkedIn profile to enhance my profile as an educator, trainer and outreach manager.  It has been hard to change my brand, as they say, to be seen in new ways.  In the process of this re-branding, I have come to see myself differently.

I will always be a religion geek - loving ethics and theology along with the why and how of faith.  I am not renouncing any part of what I have done or been, rather I am choosing to start a new chapter or maybe even it is a new book.  Most profoundly I have found in Judaism the religious home I have been seeking.  Here, like Jacob I can "struggle with God," whose new name Israel means "one who struggles with God."  I am not asked to believe impossible things.  One hallmark of Reform Judaism is the idea of  informed choice.  It is expected that I will learn and know the variety of ways people practice Judaism, including things like the dietary laws, and determine what practices resonate and work to deepen my life, particularly my spiritual life.

I do not make this choice lightly or with haste.  It has taken me a year and a half of prayer, reflection and participation at Or Ami to come to the point of joining and deciding to start the conversion process.  I told Rabbi Ahuva that I plan to take a full year before completing the ritual of conversion. This year for me will begin after I preach my final sermon on Christmas Day which also corresponds to the first full day of Hanukkah.

One unique part of my journey is that while I am choosing to be Jewish, my family is not.  So a part of this year will be figuring out how to observe the holidays and Shabbat in the context of a family that is not.  We have agreed as a family that there are things we will do together like celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the candles and enjoying latkes and hopefully make sufganiyah (fried jelly filled donuts) and Donna loves the festival of Shavuot because it means I will make cheesecake.

While I do not know all that this next year will hold, I do know I am both at peace and excited about the journey. Unwritten says it well:
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Celebrating Giving Thanks - Revisited

As I am striving to get back into my routine of Throwback Thursday posts and new posts, I offer this sermon from November 2014.  I know this Thanksgiving is complicated one for many and that families have been torn apart due to the recent election.  It can be hard to feel grateful when so much, to so many of us, seems to be wrong. Also let us remember the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Once again, in the interest of "progress" and outright greed the land of Native Americans is being taken.  The pipeline threatens clean water and sacred burial grounds. Once again violence is being used to suppress the voices of those who only desire is to have their land left undisturbed, their water clean, and the burial ground left in peace. 

This sermon was preached Sunday, November 23, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.  

Story for All Ages: The First Thanksgiving, adapted and drawn from this piece from National Geographic.
Reading: Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Oct. 3, 1865

Celebrating Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday.  As a child I believed with my whole heart the image of Native Americans and Pilgrims sitting down to a wonderful feast, celebrating cooperation and friendship.  I was taught little about the settlements at Roanoke and Jamestown.  It seemed to me that American history began with the Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims.  My understanding of the relationship between the colonists and Native Americans was also rather simplistic that did not encompass the genocide inflicted on the Native people of this land by the Colonists.

Now my understanding is much more complex. Yes there was a Fall Feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans. There was cooperation for many years until the Colonists decided they did not want to cooperate any longer and wanted full scale control of the land.  In our reading for today we learn that the agreement between Wampanoag  and the English settlers for mutual support and defense, lasted only for one generation.  Many Native Americans in New England and other places refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving and instead gather together to remember and grieve the broken promises and those who lives were lost.  A powerful reminder that Thanksgiving is complicated filled with both celebration and grieving.

It was for this sermon that I first read Abraham’s Lincoln Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. Funny how that while I knew well the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, I knew little or nothing about Lincoln and Thanksgiving.  So Lincoln offers this Thanksgiving Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War which will not end for another two years.  It was a woman, Sarah Joespha Hale, who began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving after discovering the 1621 fall festival labeled as the first Thanksgiving back in 1846.  Lincoln actually declared two Thanksgivings, one in August of 1863 following the battle Gettysburg and the second for General Blessings in November of 1863.

Here in the midst of much suffering on both sides of the Civil War – with young people dying, with families pitted against each other and the unity of the country at stake, Lincoln calls us on to stop and give thanks.  He acknowledges all that there is to be grateful for – bountiful fields, riches from the land such as coal and precious gems and a growing population despite the loss of life on the battlefield. He makes clear that resources that could be used to further peaceful industry are going to war.  He calls upon people not just to remember that is not ultimately themselves that created this bounty but rather to remember that these gifts come from God.  He called for Americans to be humble and thankful.  Secondly he called for people to remember those suffering the most during the war – widows, orphans, mourners and suffers due to the war.  It was not just to be a day of thanks but also a day of penitence, a day to remember what injury we had inflicted on others.  He wrote “And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

This afternoon I will be preaching at the Ecumenical Thanksgiving service and the Hebrew Scripture reading is from Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Jewish Torah.  It is a record Moses’ final instructions to the people of Israel as he won’t be leading the people into their entry into the Promised Land.  In this particular reading from Chapter 8, Moses instructs the people that the purpose of their wandering in the desert for forty years was a test of their faith and faithfulness. It was to humble them and prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in this new land.  They had known hunger and eaten Manna – a new food to them.  Moses tells us that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell. In short God had provided for them during the wilderness and now finally long promised and long awaited here was the Promised Land.

One cannot help but draw parallels between the Israelites and all the various peoples who ventured forth to find a “new to them” land.  The English, French, Dutch and Spanish all found their way to this North American continent.  They wrote letters home describing the riches.  See if any of these descriptions sound familiar as I read the description from Deuteronomy of the land the Israelites are about to enter “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.”  Who would not want to enter such a land?  Who after a long journey of searching would not want all of this?  Does this not resonate with the letters the colonists wrote back to England, France and Spain about the abundance of the land on this new to them continent?

Lincoln, like Moses, warns the people to not become arrogant, to not forget that they are not self-forming and self-creating, to remain humble, to remember that all of this bounty is a gift.  Moses reminds the Israelites to remember where they came from – for the Israelites, they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. Lincoln reminds the people to give thanks to God for all their blessings.

Like the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans, the story of the Israelites and the Promised Land is a complicated one. A story that continues today in both lands as Native Americans continue to suffer in this land of plenty and war continues in Israel as well.  All of us would do well to be humble and penitent as well as grateful.

So as we go into this week let us give thanks for the many blessings in our lives, in our families and in our community. May we enjoy time with friends and family.  May the food, storytelling and laughter be abundant.  May we stop and take a moment to give thanks. 

Let us also remember those who are suffering – those who will be working to serve the ever growing hunger of consumerism rather than being with their families, those who are working to continue to keep us safe, to put out the fires, to care for the ill and the dying.  Let us remember those who are hungry in body and hungry in spirit, those who are alone, those alienated from family, those who are without homes, those who are grieving, suffering in body and spirit. 

Do not let suffering diminish our own gratitude but rather deepen and fire our commitment to do our part to heal this hurting world.  Let us hold the paradox – hold the complexity. Even within our own lives let us hold the paradox of abundance and want.  Some of us may be celebrating a first holiday without a beloved friend or family member, others may be far away from children or parents and yet may their love and memory fill our hearts.  Let us commit ourselves to doing our part to heal this world.  May we work for a community where there is a little less suffering, fewer people alone, fewer people hungry in body and spirit.  Let us give thanks for the ability to make a difference so that this land becomes a bountiful and abundant place for all of life – human, plant and animal.  

May it be so!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

So What Comes Next

November 9, 2016

It has been a long, sad night and morning here in my household. We proudly voted yesterday to elect the first woman President and that didn't happen.  While Virginia went blue (maybe those phone calls paid off) and she won the popular vote, she will not be our President. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with grief. There are many of us who are afraid of what this means for ourselves, our families and for so many others who have been mocked, scapegoated and vilified throughout this election by the man who will be our President.

I was not an immediate Hillary supporter.  I supported Obama in 2008, Bernie in the primary and I was disappointed with the primary results.  Yet then I started reading and listening, I watched all the debates, I heard her story, and then I got excited.  I was not just voting for the lesser of two evils, I was voting for an intelligent, prepared, and qualified person, who would also be our first woman President.  I made phone calls to get out the vote (I had never done that before), and we gave a tiny bit of money.  I read articles, shared them, argued with people on the internet (ok that may have been less than productive), I voted and I prayed.

I have been grieving and crying. I am so impressed again with Kaine, Clinton and Obama and the way they are graciously stepping up and working for a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.  I can't even imagine what they are feeling.  If I am this sad what is it like for all of them and their families? I have never grieved like this over an election. I have been disappointed, I have been angry but never have I feared so much for myself and for so many others.

In terms of the most outrageous of Trump's policies, I do trust that our system of checks and balances will prevail.  I know that this is the time, to organize and work together for the country that we do want - one of inclusion, diversity, and prosperity for all.  It is going to be a challenging and difficult time. We will need to organize and those of us who have been a little more on the sidelines, will need to step up and out of our comfort zones.  I had never made phone calls before, and from this first experience I know that I will do it again. Today I am figuring out what I can start doing right now to work for a more inclusive, diverse community.

Even more so than Trump, I fear those who attend his rallies, who believe his message, who are looking to "get their America back."  I think they too are in for profound disappointment as walls are not built, Muslims are not barred from entry and deportation forces do not remove millions of people and then in other moments, I fear that the deportations could happen. I fear their anger and their fear that somehow while women, people of color, LGBT people have pushed their way to the table they have somehow lost something.  I fear the violence they have threatened.  I fear for the example Trump has set for our children, making bullying acceptable since our President has engaged in it.  I fear a rise in sexual harassment and assault and women feeling even less safe. I fear what happens when there are no jobs coming back or trickling down and those who supported him finding themselves paying more taxes. I fear what happens when his supporters start realizing they are losing insurance with employers less likely to pick it up again or they find that 'private' insurance does not cover existing conditions. And most importantly I fear the creation of a more entrenched us vs them.

See this election was not just about Trump or even Clinton - as Hillary said it was about the kind of country we want to be.  And the pain from many of us comes from knowing now that our beloved country harbors such deep seated racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. because given his rhetoric how can we not feel that those who voted for him believe these things. I do find comfort in the fact that he did not win the popular vote - most of us who voted did not want him.  I have hope that we still really want a diverse, inclusive and just country.

So today there are tears and some anger and yes there is some hopelessness.  Yet I take strength and comfort from the overwhelming number of people including the amazing Pantsuit Nation, that we will in fact stand up and work with everything we have to stop Trump and the the agenda he has for this country.  It is not just Trump, it is every lawmaker who actively works against women, people of color, immigrants, the working class, the poor, the LGBTQ community.  The work for justice, inclusion, a prosperous and just place for ALL will continue and new people, groups and organizations will arise to push it forward.

So today I will not let grief stop me from doing my work as a teacher, preparing for class, grading papers.  I will reach out to get involved with an organization to further diversity and inclusion.  The full time job search will continue.  Education may be even more important now than ever.

So if you are grieving today, know you are not alone. If you are angry, you are not alone.  If you are scared, you are not alone.  To the people outside the United States who read my blog - first thank you and I am sorry you are seeing such a dark side of our country.  It seems that just like we are seeing in many places around the globe the fear of the other, the fear of difference, it has taken power here too. It is not new, just like it is not new around the globe.  I don't know what will happen over the next four years. Just know that he does not represent or speak for the majority of us, who value our global connections and allies.

So today we grieve, then we will pick each other up - because we cannot do this alone.  We join together and we get to work.


At the polling place after casting our votes!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Drowning - A Poem

Now I do not think of myself as one who does creative writing - poems, stories, etc. - that I am more of a creative prose writer who likes to reflect in long paragraphs on life.  However, not too long ago, this poem came to me.  I have edited it, tweaked it, changed the formatting. I have sat with it, wondered if I should share it.  Is it too personal? Would it make me too vulnerable?  On the other hand, there is another part of me that wants to share it, thinking that it needs to be heard.  Maybe there are others who have felt this way and have been searching for words to express what is in their hearts. So the need to share it has surpassed my fear. What is the saying - "the magic happens outside your comfort zone?"  So here is me, stepping outside my comfort zone.


I am drowning...
      it seems like it has been for all time
I am hanging on with the two others who are counting on me,  
      on a thin ladder
This ladder keeps us from going under...but it is missing rungs 
      and the waves keep battering us
We can't yet reach a place above the water
There are those that have life preservers
     they throw them to us
     we hang on a little longer.....until they break
Some have no life preservers but they hear our cries,
They send love and prayers
Some have given us life preservers 
     but they no longer have any to share
Others have life preservers 
     but tell us that if they were to provide them it isn't a solution; 
     just giving you life preservers doesn't work

Meanwhile the storm rages,  the waves get higher and a few more rungs get knocked down
Once again we are slipping off the ladder,  
     once again we need life preservers to keep us going
Others don't know us,  they believe we can just haul ourselves back in
That if life preservers are provided 
     we will just want to get life preservers instead of working our way to dry land
They tell us this is our fault,  my fault
They call me lazy,  
     they don't really believe me that I am doing all the things I could do
     to get us to dry land
Trying every solution we know and trying ones others suggest     
     yet still we can't reach dry land,  
     getting out of the raging water 
     remains out of reach

I am drowning....there are two others counting on me
I am screaming and struggling
some just stand to the side and tell me to keep up the good work
They don't know how tired I am
They don't know that I don't know 
     how much longer I can tread water or
     if I will come up the next time the waves push me under

Dear G-d I am drowning
Do you hear my cries? 
Are you listening?
Can anyone hear me?
I am drowning...can you help?

We are not the only ones.
Some have just fallen in,  shocked,  
     unknowing of what to do
We can see them and remember how that felt
Others have been in here longer,  they are more tired,  
     more despairing
Some this is all they have ever known.   
Firm land under their feet is no more than a fairy tale.
I don't know if they still pray for relief,  for help,  
     for something different
Maybe they just pray to make it this day,  
     this hour,  
     this minute

Most do not want to see any of us
We remind them that the firm ground under their feet may not be so firm
Our cries for help are heard as a demand that they give something up,  
     something they "worked for" something "they earned"
     That we wouldn't be drowning if we had just
     "worked hard" and "played by the rules"
     instead we just want "a hand out"

I am drowning
We are drowning
Is anybody listening?
Is anybody seeing?
Can anybody help?