To Be Seen and Known

August 2, 2013

This sermon was given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on July 28th, 2013. A similar version that used the Galatians 2:15-21 was given at First Christian Church of Bowling Green on July 16, 2013. 

When I first started getting involved in my youth group in high school, my first major event was to go on a work trip to Appalachia. We got a handout before we went that provided the rules.

1. Work hard – no complaining!
2. Sleep hard – no staying up all night talking – you need your rest – see rule #1
3. Study hard – We were to learn about the culture and the people of Appalachia and also take part in bible studies.
4. Play hard – after the work, rest, and study, there would be fun activities.

So it was work hard, sleep hard, study hard, play hard. Easy to remember, short and sweet.

The hardest one for me was play hard – I was always somewhat serious and never really very good at games, but I was prepared. I was new to the youth group and I wanted to do the right things. In my efforts to do things right, I started practicing playing. To make sure, you know, I had the hang of it. My dad helped me to spruce up on my basketball, softball and volleyball, and I started running a mile a night to be in good shape for playing.

Some might say I missed the point, but I wanted to be good. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be the last person chosen for a team.

Fast forward to working on the house we were building in Appalachia. I was working with Angie Smith. She had been going to the church since she was born and so I wanted to make sure to do a good job at working hard to impress her. She was one of the popular kids and I was new and unsure of myself. As we were hammering boards she said, “God, it is so hot out here. I wish we could just quit already.

My mouth dropped open. DID SHE NOT READ THE RULES?? She was complaining which was a violation of the first rule and she took the Lord’s name in vain. She violated one of the ten commandments and one of the rules of the mission trip in one fell swoop. I was disheartened. What kind of church was this anyway where people didn’t follow the rules?

And, as you can imagine, this was not the last time that I ran into a church person who was not following their own rules or doing the things that seemed right. I’m not going to ask for raising of hands, but I can bet a lot of have experienced that. Folks in church not living up to what they say is the right way to live.

In fact, I bet most of us have experienced that ourselves. We know what we should do. We know the right things to do. And we don’t do them.

So, the question then becomes, how do we respond to this with ourselves and with others? What happens when we don’t live up to what we say is right?

Many of you might have seen a recent story going around facebook this week. It was found to be a hoax, but it was very widely posted, so much so that it is a story that speaks to a lot of people. The story goes like this:

There is a new pastor called to a church. But instead of getting dressed up on his first day at his new congregation, he dresses up like a homeless man. He goes to the big church and very few people speak to him. He is not treated well. Then, when the leaders of the church announce the new pastor, the minister dressed as a homeless man comes to the front of the church and quotes one of part of the Bible: “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you have done for me.”

He criticizes his congregation for not being kind, for not being welcoming. In essence, he criticizes them for not living out their faith. I think it is easy for ministers – and for congregations – to get into that mode. They surely should have been more welcoming to the man who looked homeless in the congregation. So it wasn’t that he was technically wrong to point that out to them, but the question is if this was the best response. And not to mention maybe not a good way to get off on the right foot if it was your first day called to a new church.

The story clearly spoke to a lot of people – either in that they recognized that their church probably would have done the same thing, and, perhaps for many of us, that we may not have been one of the ones to reach out to the visitor who appeared to be without a home.

And even though that was a Christian church and I know some of you are sitting out there thinking, “So it doesn’t really apply to us…” I have been a part of enough Unitarian Universalist churches to know that we also do this well, in our own ways. Our principles and purposes and sources and our history calls us to an overwhelming task of living ethically and responsibly, loving generously, giving of ourselves, giving of our resources in a world that does not make this easy. And many of us – I would venture to say that all of us – fall short on this. And although we try so very hard to be inclusive and welcoming, we also fall short on this too.

If you listen to Unitarian Universalist sermons around the country – or read blogs – or go to UU dinner parties, there is a sense that we should be doing more. Doing better.

And this, for me, is one of the fundamental questions of the life of our faith. How do we make sense of our repeated failures to live up to our best selves? Our congregations continue to draw in mostly middle and upper middle class people and mostly white people, despite the fact that we would like to be more broadly welcoming. Look at per capita income for churches and denominations in the U.S. Unitarian Universalists are at the very top. We don’t want to let ourselves off the hook – but, at the same time, we cannot guilt ourselves or each other into a life that is aligned with our values. What are we to do?

And I want to suggest this morning that it is not even a matter of trying harder. If you think back to my church trip I went to when I was in high school, I was determined to do well enough that I would be good enough. I wanted to do all the right things – follow all the rules, try as hard as I could!

And, even though the rules of my church trip when I was young are different from the those rules that might be implicit in our faith, make no mistake that there are implicit rules in our faith. There are things that we should say and do so that we look on ourselves as good enough – or on others good enough. Try hanging out with a bunch of UUs and saying that you don’t recycle. That you don’t believe in committee work. Try saying that you are conservative or that you don’t like NPR. Or, like a dear friend UU friend of mine in divinity school, that you pray to saints. We, like all traditions, have our way of doing things, have our way of trying to do good and be good. Trying to be good enough. To save the world and/or to save ourselves.

Another possibility for understanding what church is about is that we aren’t about getting it right. That it is not about just the right theology, that we do the right social justice action, that we just get enough money so that we can then really be the church that we want, but that people come to church and want a church because we want to find a place where we are loved no matter what. Where we are cared for and okay no matter how messed up we are. And that our work is to see each other, to provide a sense of care, of safety, and to seek to know ourselves and each other. There is so often the idea that church is about trying to get life right or affirm that we are living well. That we are not like those other people. Who are hypocrites.

But it seems to me that being a hypocrite is simply part of the human condition. I think of my most deeply held values, and I pretty much am horrible at most of them. It is all I can do to summon the energy to be nice to my family and my students, to get my house reasonably clean, to show up at church sometime, to give money to a few causes I care about, and to get my recycling out the door. My clothes are probably from sweatshops. I use disposable cups all the time. I fly too much. I drive too much. If everyone in the earth consumed as much as I did, we would need three and a half planets. I live a house that is way bigger than I need to survive, while I know people are homeless. I eat more than I need, too much of it processed and too much of it shipped in from other countries with underpaid workers who are exposed to pesticides. I walk by homeless people on the street and I do not give them money. The list goes on.

Many of us try and we try and we are still a mess. We guilt ourselves and we guilt each other to try to be better, and we are still too lonely, people are still hungry, our church still isn’t as big as we want it to be, and the world is still broken.

Brene Brown is a researcher at the University Houston has spent year studying vulnerability. She did a really popular TED talk – an online video with over a million views – and has now written a few books about her research on this. She talks about this idea that we feel we are not good enough as we are, we are scared, we are vulnerable, we don’t want to be embarrassed, or rejected, so we toughen up, we hide, we get better clothes, a better car, we volunteer more, we give more money, we look down on others more, we DO MORE OF THE RIGHT THINGS in order to be okay, in order not to be vulnerable, in order for people not to see what we really are.

And what she found as she studied was that there was no way out of this need to be vulnerable in order to be healthy. To be seen by others, as we are. She actually came at this as a very tough researcher type, attempting to get away from the mushy stuff, qualitative stuff, new age stuff that you get in a lot of research. But through years and years of study, she found there was no way to get around it… to toughen up enough… to fix it. That it was part of the human condition. This fear that we are not enough, that we must do more, be better, try harder, that we have to follow more rules, that the only way through this or out of it, is by entering into it

She talked about shame was a key part of this. We are shameful about who we think we really are, so we hide it. We cover it by knowing more. Getting more. Drinking more. Sleeping with more people. By doing more right things at church. We give more money. There are a million things we do to try to be good. To be better. To be enough.

And she talks about this fear disconnection – if they know who we REALLY are – if you know who I really am – you will not love me. We will not connect. They will not want me. I am not really, if they really knew me, lovable.

We know about shame – the less you talk about it, the more you have it. And let’s be real. Church people are good about not talking about stuff, right? We come here and we nod our heads and we are dying inside. We are in a failing marriage. People don’t like us at our school, at work, in our house. There are affairs. Addictions. We are faking it. We are numbing ourselves with food. With TV. And we come to church and we nod our heads and we are DYING inside, because if they really knew us… if they really knew who we were they would not want me here.

Yet, we find and the research finds doing destructive things to numb ourselves and doing the right things to try to earn our way to goodness have not saved us. They have not made it okay. Brown points out that “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”

Years and years of trying to doing all the right things and say the right things, and trying harder have not saved us from the pain or from ourselves or from this broken broken world. (Because I have Baptist roots, this is where I have to say, “Can I get an Amen!?”)

And although Brown’s work doesn’t focus on churches per se, I think it has great implications for our churches and for those of in the church. I suggest that her work doesn’t tell us to stop trying to be better. To stop yearning to live out our highest values or to call others to that. Yet, I think she says that call to be better, that yearning and striving and pushing must be preceded by love. By creating space for vulnerability – a space where we can see and know each other where we can authentically connect. People’s messiness that defies rationality or reasonableness. And this is hard for UUs because of our long tradition of fetishizing rationality. If we can just understand it and map it out, then we can do it, right? Yet, there is more.

The philosopher the 17th century Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” And to get at these reasons – the heart reasons – we must begin and return to love. Forgiveness. No matter what. No matter how unkind you are. No matter what a mess you are. No matter how lonely you feel. If you feel ugly. If you are an addict. If you are mean.  Or a liar.

And we have to tell ourselves – WE are still good. You are still good.

You are still enough and the church must say that. No once and not in our mission statement and not just on Sundays and not just to each other or in our handouts but every. Single. day. Because we come here on Sundays for sustenance, but the church is us. We are out there in the world day in and day out and we have to say this not only to ourselves, but to the world.

Brown’s research found, only when we can be vulnerable in our imperfection and in our brokenness, can we connect with others. Can we be real. Can we heal and feel and flourish.

And I know that churches in general do not have a great track record for this, but I think the idea of church CAN be that we can come in, that we welcome, NO MATTER WHAT.

Does this mean we give up on trying to do better? No. But the love, the grace, the safe space of acceptance, where there is space for vulnerability, has to come first… that we cannot even come close to becoming who we are called without the room for vulnerability – to be seen and known – coming FIRST. Making the foundation.

We have to know we already have what it takes because it is already there. No amount of doing things, following rules, or numbing things or running from things, will make it work. That our souls and hearts and lives and potentials are enough now.

In order for connection to happen we have to let ourselves to be seen. We have to quit being ashamed of ourselves. That we aren’t thin enough, successful enough. That we are alone. That we do bad things.    Brown calls vulnerability uncomfortable and scary BUT also goes on to say that this vulnerability is the “birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, love.”

What if people thought of churches as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love? Where people did not feel shame, but welcome. Welcome to their whole selves. Where there is nothing you can do to be good enough, because you are already good enough?

Imagine how much more healed we would be if that is what churches were? Where we looked at the broken souls, the proud souls, each and every one of us who is putting on a show of ourselves and said – you are not your show. You are not your clothes. Or your politics, or your job. None of that. You are enough.

We try and we fail and we try again to get our minds around this kind of love which is the foundation on which we build. We can’t start with the doing. The doing can only grow once we are willing to believe that we are enough. And not only that we are enough – here in this room – but that we – as in all of us, are enough. The folks at the evangelical church or across the world. The folks down the road from us. Who we work with. Who cut us off in traffic. People that you disagree with. We are all the children of God or of the Divine Wonder whose name we cannot know.

Let us see that in each other. Let us know each other. May we see each other. And in that knowing and seeing, the connections that nourish and change and heal will come.

May it be so. Amen.

 

 

* This material is copyrighted and should not be used without permission and attribution.


Life In the ICU

December 9, 2012

I’ve been in the ICU with my mom since Monday when there was bleeding on her brain. When I arrived, she lay there like a blob, mouth agape in that terrible way that older sicker people look in the hospital. She had lost consciousness not long before I arrived, although as she was fading in and out (mostly out) her eyes met mine and she knew who I was and I saw her in her eyes. And I told myself to hold on to that and I loved it and held it.

Although we are not out of the woods by any means yet, she is now awake and herself, and I do not have to cling to what I thought might be our last shared glance. Save for some confusion and forgetfulness that is common with such trauma, she is here. She has a stint in her skull going into her brain that drains out the spinal fluid that is backed up.

I read the numbers and glowing green graphs like a little crystal ball that might let me see something about how she is. I jump up when the machines beep, answering them like sirens calling for me to come hither. I devour medical journal articles on NASAH (nonaneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage, for those of you not in the know) like a fifth grader who just discovered Harry Potter, learning so quickly the lingo and the protocols as if me knowing them will somehow make it more likely that everything will be okay.

This life, it is so precious, we say over and over again like a little mantra to ourselves to remind our hearts and our minds to appreciate the beauty and fragility of it all. We are in an impossible bind where we must plan for a long-term life of financial security and safety and at the same time little quotes tell us to be present and in be in the moment and live as if it was the last day of your life. It is all impossible and broken and yet we must go on and find a balance and a way forward, more subject than we would like to be to our histories and the years of established synaptic patterns.

All the little noises of the ICR – the beeping and the cuffs inflating and deflating and the nurses giggling in the hall and the water flowing for the oxygen machine – they become familiar so very fast.

And, in the end, I think that there is little to be said. Over and over again our hearts break and we lose our breath and we feel the shaking of our hands as we long for a life of stability and love and comfort. And over and over again, it does not come and we try to love and we try to pray and hope and wish and stumble our way to something that makes this all worth it.

And so I just pray. For me and others who might have the same prayer.

God of all,
We come to you tonight, out of ideas.
Out of ways to make it better or easier.
We long for peace and stability.
For a safety that we’ve been chasing for so many years
That never comes.
I do not believe in an interventionist God.
I am afraid you are not up there with some sort of control board,
watching over my mother’s inter-cranial pressure or
Tim Tebow’s football games or the Egyptian referendum.
And so, we are left only to ask
that we are open to your Love
That I am told
Is already there.
Washing over us
Day and night.
In the ICU.
Over my sweet mother.
On our tongues.
In each heart ventricle.
With each beep of those machines
And click of the nurses’ shoes
May we know of the preciousness of this all.
The moments in the ICU
and a thousand other imperfect moments
of pain and hope and joy and tragedy
and banality.
All we have in this little tiny slice
Of time we get on this spinning planet.
Help us live into the awareness of your Love.
And the Holiness of all of this.
It must be holy, God,
It must be. Right?
God, so many of us have run out of ideas
about how to make this work.
Be with us as we try to let go of the trying
And the fixing
Of the feeling sorry for ourselves
And the mental and verbal reviews of the injustice Of it All.
May we practice presence.
Awareness of the power
of what we can do in those seconds
To love and be kind and speak up
To do things differently
To move closer to Right.
These moments and moments.
For it is, we remember (and then forget), all we have.
Amen and Blessed Be.


On the Pain of Loving Others

December 9, 2012

Tomorrow I will give this letter to a 26 year old young man who I mentored for 17 years. I wish there was more I could do than write letters like this. It is so hard to love others and want good for them and yet also know that we cannot do it for them. It feels so inadequate yet is the best I can do. Sigh.

*

My dearest B,

I hope you’ll take time to read what I have to say here

The first thing is that I love you. I love you deeply and with all my heart, like a family member. I have always seen a spark in you, a wonder, and magic. I have always believed in you. I will always believe in you no matter what, and I will always love you no matter what.

Secondly, I know I cannot know what your life is like. You have faced many many hard things – since you were small and since you have been an adult. This is not fair. No one should have to face the things you have. But, yet, the world is broken and unjust and good people face things they do not deserve. I know I cannot know what this is like.

Third, I’m sorry if you think I lecture you too much or I am too silly or cheerful with you. I somehow thought that you liked this and that this worked well for our relationship. I am happy to stop this, to tone it down. I thought somehow that you appreciated it, as a bit of cheer that you may not have other places in your life and also that you knew that my challenging you came from a place of believing in you and loving you and knowing your great potential. Please feel free to be honest with me and tell me what you need from me. I much prefer an honest real relationship, to a fake relationship like I am some sort of social worker or something.

And, in the spirit of being honest, here is what I have to say. I hope that our relationship over the years lets you know I say it with deep love and respect for you.

You have two dear children and another child that is like a son to you. Their lives have already been too hard. I believe that you, with sweet E, have the ability to give them a better life – the kind of life that you did not have. But, and I know you know this, this is going to involve making hard decisions. No one taught you well how to make hard decisions and I know it is very hard to teach yourself that. In many ways, you’ve succeeded on your own to do better than many from your neighborhood which is amazing and speaks to your spirit and strength.

But, what your boys deserve – and what you deserve – is a stable life. The house on H Street will not provide that sort of stable life – it will not fix everything. But, it is a start. You have the possibility to OWN the house. To get support from me, and from M, and from others that we connect with. I had that sort of support from my family – it was pure luck. Sometimes we get it from our biological families and sometimes we get it from others who love us deeply even if they are not blood family. I have no desire to force you to do anything, but I do want to say that I want you to jump on this opportunity. Sometimes doing the right thing is just very hard and takes several tries. I’m sorry about the challenges with the house the first time, but I want you to give it a second chance. I really believe we can make it beautiful, that you can own it, that you can live in a decent neighborhood and with time get decent jobs where you make more and where life is not as hard. This is what your Mom wanted for you – an easier life, a better life.

I also really want you to go to the job center and get food stamps. I know you don’t like it, but it is there for a reason and would make a difference while you and your family try to get on your feet. I have loaned you a good bit of money which I am happy to do, but I also want you to do whatever you can to get support from other sources too. I would also like you to try to get medical coverage. If you don’t do it for you, I wish you would consider doing it for your boys who need you to be healthy.

I want you to know from the bottom of my heart this is not a lecture. I believe in you more than I think you do and perhaps more than anyone in your life. I KNOW you can be more than someone who plays fucking video games all day. That is such an insult to who you can be and what you can do in this world that longs for good, decent loving people like you. It is a waste of who you can be and who you are. I am never sure how religious you are – and maybe I am not sure how religious I am – but I do believe that you were created and brought into this world for a purpose. That you were made by a God that has plans of goodness for you and your children. I want to find a way to get to that – to live into that Hope and Love that is part of who you are.

I will love you always, no matter what you do. I will believe in you always. At the same time, I think this is turning point in your life. It is a time when you can decide to be another Black kid from the projects who half-asses things. I would love you even if that is what you decide. But I believe you can be more than that. You are one of the most special people I’ve ever known. And I want to see you live into the fullness of who you can be. I was pleased the other day when you told me that I do not over-estimate you. I hope this is the time when you live into the fullness of who you can be. I don’t expect miracles, but over time, deep effort, lots of trying, lots of hard choices will yield a life that is worthy of all of your gifts.

I love you dearly, B. You are an absolute miracle with unlimited potential.

I hope you don’t get too irritated at me for writing this. I hope you read it all.

With deepest care and affection,

Elizabeth


Sharing a Little Christmas Spirit Love

November 30, 2012

Regular readers of this blog know that have mentored a great group of young men since they were in elementary school (going on 17 years now!). One of the young men and his partner of 7 years and they have three boys ages 10, 5 and 3.  The oldest is the mother’s son from a previous relationship, but the young man I mentor acts as his father and treats him like a son. Both the young man I mentor and his partner lost their minimum wage jobs this year and became homeless, losing all of their possessions because they had no where to put them. They are both now working – the young man since summer and his partner since October and are trying hard to get back on their feet. They rarely ask of anything of me except moral support, but I told them I wanted to help with Christmas. They have good hearts and are defying many statistics – no drugs, no arrests, no abuse, raising children together – but they still face a lot of struggles. I’m working with them and friends to try to get them into a house where they will pay rent, but the owner is willing to work with them on a rent to own plan the next 20 years which is an amazing thing for them and we are also working on GEDs so that they can try to get better jobs – she would like to be a nurse and he loves to cook and would like to work his way up in a kitchen somewhere. They desperately want to provide a better life for their children. I told them I would take care of Christmas (they protest every year, as they are proud, but I insisted). We’ve covered a lot of it and also tried to get donations from friends here who have boys the same age and have extras to give to them. However, since so much was lost in being homeless (they are currently in a precarious, overcrowded situation with extended family) they have a lot of needs. I made an amazon wish list for them here http://amzn.com/w/1D8EO82EXCGS3. There is no pressure AT ALL, however, if you’d like to help out and buy a little thing for them, they and the boys would be very appreciative. I’ll try to deliver everything to them by December 15 or 17.


Turkeys and Thanksgiving and Such

November 21, 2012

This is a time when everyone (including my lovely family) is writing and talking about what they will cook and make for the Thanksgiving meal. As vegetarians and folks who are aware that many Native Americans refer to Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning, it is not quite as exciting for us.

Don’t get me wrong. I really love everyone taking time to be thankful and give attention to our families. I also am very aware that most folks, like us, don’t really tend to associate our holiday traditions with the supposed first Thanksgiving meal. Aside from the ridiculousness taught to most elementary school kids, pilgrims and Native Americans are not really part of Thanksgiving for many of us.

So I get that my feelings about Thanksgiving could be read as crazy liberal stuff, crazy vegetarian stuff. I am certainly not going to raise this with my family or neighbors because I don’t want to be seen as the strange one ruining the fun talking about Native Americans and trying to stand up for turkeys or something. We eat a vegan fall meal in our home on Thanksgiving and welcome anyone who wants to join us.

But, in a way, this is sort of my concern. Because violence get normalized when those who point out the violence (historical or present day) are the “weird” ones.

So, on the one hand, I want to avoid disrupting a nice day by good people who are just trying to have a good meal together. On the other hand, I want not to normalize the history and the killing that is quite literally at the center of this holiday, with the turkey in the middle of the table.

So here is the story we tell in our family around Thanksgiving:

Our son was born at home, at the end of a dead end road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Our house was up against ten acres of woods and it was quiet and I can’t think of a better place for him to have been born. It was a chilly spring day that he was born. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for over 24 hours. Finally, when I got up for the first time my partner said, “Look out the window!!” I looked out into our back yard, which was right up against the forest and there were 14 wild turkeys, a deer, two bunnies, and a squirrel sitting out in our yard. It was misty out, early in the morning, the day after our son had been born.

We tell him that the animals in the forest knew that a new creature had been born in the woods and they came to welcome him. In a way, I’m sure that is not quite true. But, in another way, I have to wonder if it is. We had never seen any turkeys or deer until this moment – just the occasional bunny and our squirrels.

We tell our son that the turkeys were excited to see him especially because they are simple, peaceful animals and it is a message to us that we do best when we also live simple and peacefully.

We tell him the story of how, many years ago, people lived in the land we now call Plymouth, his birth place, and people came from Europe and wanted to live there too. We haven’t gotten to the details (i.e. the massacres) but in general we point out that it is hard when different people want to live in same place and we need to be thoughtful about how we live with others – the harm we cause and the ways we can lessen that. We tell him that his birth location and his welcome by the turkeys and other animals of the woods is a gift to him to remember the ways that we can live more peacefully, with a spirit of welcome. Eating animals in general seems strange to him since he has never eaten animals and rarely sees others do so. But, we hope that, over time, his birth story helps him remember his connection to animals and to history such that it calls him to make a different sort of world than the one we have.

I get that it might seem hippie or cooky to some. But, for us, it is a small way to say that there is enough killing in the world. There is enough pain and enough violence and we’re just going to do our best to lessen how much of that we take part in, recognizing that we can never fully extract ourselves from this broken world with broken systems of violence that we are a part of. But, at the very least, we’ll try not to celebrate it and try to opt out when we can.


Goodbye Fast Fading Magical Ones

November 18, 2012

I remember them in our kitchen with their beers
Laughing thunderous laughs
With mouths wide open and heads thrown back
Like it was still the nineteen seventies
When my parents and they were young and beautiful
And funny and enamoured with themselves as most
Young beautiful profound people were in the nineteen seventies.

Except now, as they laughed in our kitchen, I was five
And my sister was three
And we were not quite sure what to make of these
Mystical people who would show up
And we would stay up past our bedtime
Listening to their stories
Pondering at their unfamiliar mannerisms
In our yellow kitchen
Too late into the night

He had hundreds of albums
And I can’t remember if I saw him and my father
Playing them on the turn table and drinking beer
With smoke around them
Or if I just pictured it in my mind that way
Because I had heard the small simple
Legends of the camaraderie and joy
Of the time sitting
And listening and talking and drinking
And basking in the wonder of
Friendship that became a synergy
Of magic and a kind of madness

The descent for these dear people
Whom my parents loved
Was so rapid that it is almost
Not possible to think about it
Or make sense of the liver cancer
And brain cancer
And the loss
And illness
It all happened so quickly
Yet in a sort of bizarre painful slow motion

And these mythical people
Faded fast
Like the ghost from 1976
That they seemed to me to be

Like so many beloved and central people in our lives
They were not without great faults
Yet we don’t often love people
Because they are without faults
But because they would die for us
And we would die for them
And we have laughed with them
And cried
And we retell our stories
Like the smoldering ashes of the dawn

And so it goes again
The passing of this time
Like a hammer smashing the finger
And it comes again and again
And you get used to it
Realizing that that pain
Is just part of what it means
To live

And we say goodbye again
To people we love
Who were broken and flawed
And magical and glorious.


On Hunting

November 14, 2012

I know some vegetarians think hunting is absolutely abhorrent and are quite judgmental about people who hunt, often moreso than just plain old meat eaters. However, I am not one of those vegetarians. I get while people hunt. I get why people eat meat. People around me hunted when I was growing up and they were good, decent, lovely people. My friends post pictures of the deer they kill on facebook or announce proudly that their children shot their first turkey. We live in a world where we all take part in violence. Sometimes it is with what we eat. Or hunting. Or doing things that are destructive to our world, like driving or flying. Or eating vegetables that are harvested by underpaid workers exposed to pesticides shipped thousands of miles across continents. We smoosh spiders in our house. We put cow’s milk in our coffee that was from a cow kept in a confined, industrial space her whole life until she stops producing enough and then gets sent off to slaughter. We throw things in the landfill that take up precious space, seeping chemicals into our water. And so on. For me, I see eating and killing animals as part of a collection of the ways that we do harm in the world and I claim a place in that complex of ways that we harm.

This said, I think there is a difference between acknowledging systems of harm and violence in which we all take and celebrating it. I have to admit as I see people I admire and care about post pictures of small children with freshly shot animals, or excited posts about children killing their first turkey or deer, my heart aches. Because, I think when we kill animals and say “This is neat and for children,” we normalize harming others needlessly. We do not need meat to be healthy, or if you don’t buy that (even though I do), at the very least, we need much less of it. So even if you think we need it, it is one thing to say, “We think that this is essential to health and yet we still regret that we must kill beings who suffer in order to live as we think we need to,” and it is another thing to say, “This is a way to connect to nature! There is a rush. This is something to be proud of. This is normal. This is fine. This is nothing to weep at.”

Because when we learn that we should not weep at the suffering of animals by our own hands, it cannot stop there. We learn not to weep at the suffering of others in our own hands. Child abuse and bullying appears to be epidemic in the United States. We run around, baffled, developing programs to stop bullying and calling, most often in vain, for people to stop abusing children. We say that we need more social workers. Stricter laws. More oversight. But, what I say, is that when violence in normalized – when harming other beings who suffer and feel is considered not only to be essential for survival but also a sport, also fun, also a rite of passage, also fun, also something to be proud of, then is it any wonder that it becomes more possible to harm each other without feeling as though it is all that bad? Or, even if we know something is bad, this often does not free us from doing these things, as we are part of systems of violence and deeply influenced by formative moral experiences. Hurting others gets normalized. When we shoot animals. When we eat meat. When we eat our vegetables grown by underpaid workers who die early from cancer because of such hard work and pesticides and no health care. The question for me is how we can, with the very love and care that we long for in the world, denormalize the suffering that is part of the fabric of how most U.S. Americans live.

I am so very far from perfect. I know that so many of the ways that I live causes harm to other beings who suffer. Thus, I think vegetarians who take some sort of dramatic moral high ground do not serve their causes well. At the same time, I do think it would be good to examine more closely how our normalized practices of violence might impact the world in which we live and the world that we create. Annie Dillard says that the way we spend our days, is the way that we spend our lives. I’m not sure that we are able to separate what we do for sport and fun and what we eat for dinner from the larger swath of how we are in the world. I suppose this leads me to want to think of my life not in some sort of moral absolutist terms, but in terms of formation and harm reduction. Perhaps the more we reduce harm and become aware of and face the harm we do, the more we might build on that. Maybe this means walking more. Planting a garden. Buying from a local farmer. Eating less meat. Not giving our children guns. Not yelling at our children. Not spanking them. Pretty much, trying to live in a way that treats others who can suffer the way we would like to be treated if we were them. I know it sounds a little cliched, but it does seem to make sense that in both direct (shooting a deer) and indirect (buying produce from a source that causes workers harm) we should try to treat others how we would want to be treated. For me, humans are an important part of this, but I would say that suffering is a central factor which also includes non-human animals. Surely we should treat our pets with care and reduce suffering and we can relate to why we might wish to do that. It seems like we might wish to extend that to other animals who can suffer too.

And as both a call and a prayer I say to myself – less harm, I’m sorry, less harm, and I’m sorry, calling myself to do less harm while also knowing that I cannot stop it.

It may be that churches and people faith might take a similar position, acknowledging the ways we are products of a broken world, but also acknowledging and celebrating the ways that we can take small steps toward something different.

May it be so.


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