When Things Can Only Be Carried

April 1, 2019

Text: Gospel of Mark Chapter 14:3-9

I think often we read biblical stories with a somewhat numb mind. Many of us have heard them before. Often scriptures are often read out of context, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on in the broader scheme of the story. For those who have been going to church for a long time, maybe even since you were little, it can be hard to enter into the beauty and the holiness of the stories in the midst of our hectic lives.

Sometimes it is like if you eat a whole box of chocolates – or maybe around this time of year, a whole bag of king size Cadbury chocolate eggs. By the 15th chocolate egg you aren’t exactly savoring each and every bite.

This is not a criticism of us – this is part of life. If you don’t get to see your kids very often, you can appreciate all their sweet little idiosyncrasies – but by day nine of spring break when you’ve been spending every minute together, somehow you can’t quite treasure their little laugh or cute little pile of legos in the floor as much as you might otherwise have.

So as we join together on the last Sunday before Holy week, as we near the end of Lent, I want to invite us to slow down and really take in the amazing beauty and power of this week’s scripture.

It is two days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany visiting followers and friends at the house of Simon the Leper. Bethany is about a mile outside of Jerusalem. At this time in Mark, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, palm leaves spread before him. We know that sisters Mary and Martha and Jesus’s friend Lazarus also all live in Bethany. We can imagine the times are tense. Jesus and his followers know that Jesus’s message has spread far and wide.

Those who hold power are worried. They are trying to think of a way to arrest Jesus, to quiet him, to silence his message and to discourage his followers who are questioning the long-held power structures and rules of the authorities and they are envisioning that there might be a different way to live.

The son of God hangs out at the house of a leper.

Women have roles of leadership that they have never been allowed in other faiths and movements of the time.

The last are first. The poor are blessed.

The savior of the world doesn’t enter triumphantly into Jerusalem with weapons or pomp and circumstance, but humbly and beautifully on the back of a common donkey.

Things are different and people can tell.

Everyone is tense.

The time is coming. They know what is to come.

Sometimes there are no words.

A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.

Jesus is sitting at the table. We can imagine everyone talks in hushed voices, in the way we do when we sit and wait for death that we know is coming.

Have you ever held vigil for one you love? Have you ever known something will come and you know it must but you don’t want it to and you don’t know what to do?

They sat in Simon’s house around the table perhaps with little to say as they wondered what would happen and how. We have heard the story before, but they did not know how the story would play out exactly.

The woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

We can imagine it drizzling down slowly on his hair. She gently rubs his hair, moves her fingers over his temple slowly so the oil doesn’t get in his eyes. The fragrance fills the room.

Sometimes there are no words for the grief, and the fear, and the difficulties we face.

The people around get upset. What in the world are you doing? Wasting so much?! They chastise her. You can imagine everyone is stressed and perhaps a little on edge. People don’t know how to react to someone just walking up and putting oil on Jesus’s head. Maybe he isn’t going to like this. We could have sold that and given the money to the poor they snap.

When we are hurting or scared, we often lash out at those around us. When we are aren’t sure what will happen or what to do, we often aren’t our best selves.

Have you ever lashed out in your pain?

How often are we hurt by those who are in pain who don’t know what to do?

It was no different around this table many years ago in Bethany.

But Jesus speaks up. Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me, he says.

He knows what she has done. She has anointed him with oil, an act of hospitality, a gesture of affection, and ceremonially preparing him for the burial which is to come. It is a silent acknowledgment of what is to come, an acknowledgement that a serious situation sometimes requires more than we can afford to give, an act of love, a holy act.

She has done what she could, Jesus says. She has done what she could.

In a time when we are to slow down, and contemplate what is to come, this story of anointing reminds us of the ways that the church and the church’s people can break down barriers and build bridges, particularly in moments when people are scared, when people are hurting, when they are longing for comfort and care and answers and safety. When they either don’t know quite what is to come or perhaps they do know what comes and it feels unbearable.

There are so many ways that we love people and are there for people without words. When words aren’t really enough. Megan Divine who writes about grief in her book It’s OK that You’re Not OK says that there are some things that cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. They will be with us always, but we can learn to journey with them, and over time, we can learn to journey with them with some measure of peace, or even with a little joy eventually.

As we think about barriers and bridges and how we love and how we welcome as the hands and feet of Christ, this week we might especially attend to the non-traditional ways that we do this – not just with our words, but with our actions, with our holy rituals, for Christianity is a deeply embodied faith. In what ways do we and can we respond to others when they are hurting and unsure, that follows the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar who offered hospitality, gentleness, care, and preparation?

One way that we do this is through the open table. Each week, we feed each other. An intimate act. Everyone is welcome, everyone can serve, everyone can eat. We can say we are as welcoming as we want, but we also show this by a table that doesn’t just say, “Well, perhaps you can join us if you believe this,” or maybe in the future you might believe what we want you to believe or do… No. It is a no questions asked act of love and welcome and nourishment.

We also break down barriers sometime by simply bearing witness, gently and quietly.

The last time I preached here was June 24, 2018. I remember the date perfectly because it was also the day that the child I was pregnant with died. We knew the pregnancy was struggling and Megan offered to cover for me, but I told her I could do it. I preached, in somewhat of a daze, knowing what was to come in the days or weeks ahead, but not sure how or when and perhaps still hoping that there would be a miracle I knew was not really possible.

After church I went home and by that afternoon I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I spent my last hours with my baby to-be here on this altar.

I really thought I would die of a broken heart, our sweet little boy was wanted so very much.

I didn’t want to speak to anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t know what to make of it, really.

Perhaps many of us here have faced a loss that hurt so much that our words failed us. That we didn’t know what to do.

That we were speechless. That it felt as if there was a hole in our heart or a brick in our stomach.

Megan brought over tea and an orchid and left it on my porch, honoring my need to be alone.

I drank the tea, lying in bed, with my red nose and empty heart, wondering how I could go back into the world, but thankful to have the comfort of something warm from people who cared.

I haven’t been to church as much as I was before that day. I haven’t known exactly why, I’ve felt guilty, unsure of what to say to people about my absence. About our baby. In my life, there will always be the before and the after that day.

And yet, I have been so welcomed because no one has pressured me to be here before I was ready. I am warmly hugged and greeted when I can come. Whenever you’re ready, we’re here, Megan has told me as I’ve worried about reentering life after my loss.

Building bridges sometimes means waiting, it sometimes means silent acts of vigil and love, knowing that there are not words adequate to heal the pain that people face. Sometimes we bring them tea, or flowers, or a homemade blanket, a dish of food, or knitted scarf or an alabaster jar.

Sometimes breaking down barriers means we do things that seem out of the ordinary. She has done what she could, Jesus said of the woman with the alabaster jar.

I have spent the year reading about grief. Reading about the way we try to fix it when people are sad, doing our best to console them, but often putting our foot in our mouth, struggling with the right words because we live in a culture that often wants us to sanitize the struggles we face, to heal faster, to cheer up, whispering only to those closest to us, often not naming the miscarriage, the affair, the addiction, the depression, the loneliness that so many carry with them.

And, to be honest, churches don’t have the best track record of holding these pains well. There are too many stories of shaming, of leaving out, of rejecting, of glossing over, of gossiping, of judging, and of mistaking ourselves as God.

So this morning as we think about the barriers we might put up – around our church or around ourselves – and the bridges we might build – among each other and with those around us – we can remember the woman with the alabaster jar.

She knew that should could not fix things.

She did not offer cheerful platitudes that everything would be okay or reassure everyone that it would be all turn out well. Because she did not know and because, in many ways, it would not be okay. It was not okay when Jesus was taken away from his people and tortured and killed, when Jesus cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It was not even okay after the empty tomb and resurrection because… well, look around us. Even in the midst of the risen Christ, our world still struggles and God still weeps for all of our sweet souls who go on hurting each other and being so hard on ourselves.

The woman with the alabaster jar simply did what she could – she gave what she had – in fact gave lavishly in an act of hospitality, of affection, and consecration of Jesus’s body and his path, honoring his death which was to come.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity School and her area of focus is in the study of the prosperity gospel, Joel Olsteen, the idea that fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune is a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in Kate’s life seemed to point toward blessing. She was thriving at her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and has a newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forced her to realize that she has been inadvertently subscribing to the prosperity gospel, the idea that if we do the right things, things will be okay. Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, there is also the darker side of that… that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you may just have done something wrong. What does it mean to die, at 35 she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved she asks what happens when we let go of platitudes about death and loss and and don’t immediately put all bad things under the category of “God’s plan,” and live into the mystery of an existence where we don’t explain our struggles and hurt away and instead sit with each other as we acknowledge the ways that beauty and struggle are woven up together in a mystery that is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and bear witness to this among each other.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. And with Jesus reminding us that when we proclaim the good news, we also must tell the story of those who bear witness in times when words are not enough. When we proclaim the good news, we must also remember the importance of unexpected acts of care, of preparation, of quiet affection and hospitality that punctuate the ebb and flow of grief that our people face day in and day out.

Sometimes breaking down barriers and building bridges is slow, quiet work among aching or grieving people whose pain it is hard to know.

We remember today that we do not have to fix things or have the right answers. We can feed each other at the table, we can wait patiently on each other, sit quietly with sweet gifts of tea and orchids and handmade quilts and home-cooked meals, being present. Anointing in our own ways with our own oil.

In memory of her.


Finding Our Way to Sunday

April 4, 2015

Holy Week can be a lot of things. It can be a time when people who are not Christians or religious feel sick of seeing things in their Facebook feed about religion. It can be a time to color eggs and get dressed up. It can be our one visit to church this year. It can be a reminder that loss is excruciating and painful. It can be an invitation to remember the kind of lives we are called to, where even when you try to do the right thing, sometimes people betray you and bad things happen. And it can be a reminder that even after bad things happen, there are often ways forward that you we can’t yet imagine, that don’t even seem possible.

Holy Saturday is especially important to me because it reminds me of all the people in the wake of loss, in the midst of unbearable hopelessness. On that Saturday after Jesus was killed, no one knew what was to come. For the disciples, for the people who believed that Jesus could renew faith and perhaps renew the world, for Mary who loved her son so dearly, they sat on that Saturday in anguish. Shock. In the numb that often follows death. It wasn’t yet Holy Saturday. It was just a sad, horrible Saturday for people who thought things were maybe going to be better.

This Saturday, may we not run too quickly to the hope, the stone rolled away, the miracle, and remember all of those people who are sitting in shock, in trauma, in aloneness, and in fear. Who hope that there will be new life, somehow, in the midst of death, but don’t yet see a way. May we remember how important it is to be with folks who are in that long Saturday. Who long for love, who need our care, and who need us to be patient with them and welcoming to them as we all try to find our way to Sunday.

Holy week can be a lot of things. This is the beauty of the incredibly rich Christian tradition. It can be coloring eggs and visits to church once a year, it can be an invitation to live a different life, and it can be a reminder of the rough world we live in and the possibility that it might be different. It can be all these things and a thousand more. I am thankful for a God that wants us all where we are at. Let’s widen that circle. Build a bigger tent. Come in and let’s figure it out together.

Amen amen amen.

p.s. A good book on Holy Saturday is Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.


The Power of Those Smudges

February 24, 2012

I’m just going to be upfront and say that on Tuesday, I looked up Ash Wednesday on Wikipedia. There. I said it. I mean, I knew that it was the start of Lent. Which is the time before Easter. But between the Baptist church I attended as a child, and the two very low-church Methodist churches I went to as a teenager and Campus Crusade for Christ in college and then the whole leaving the church and then becoming Unitarian Universalist and then staying that but also sort of reentering Christianity, let’s just say that the liturgical calendar wasn’t really a big part of my church life. (Who need the liturgical calendar when you are being RADICAL for JESUS and have, like, four Bible studies to go to every week!?)

And, as Nick Cave says, I don’t believe in an interventionist God, so I won’t say that God somehow pulled me to Ash Wednesday services (or [back to] to Christianity for that matter) but if I did believe those things, that is what I would have said about the services I went to yesterday.

Early this week I was thinking about standing outside of divinity school a few years ago, having missed Ash Wednesday services around campus and seeing everyone with the ashes smudged on their heads and asking my friend Nicole what exactly it was all about and sort of musing that I somehow liked it. And dear Nicole reached up on her head and took some of the ashes from her forehead and put a small faint cross on my head with her ashes, telling me that the priest [she is Catholic] says, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” We talked some about the time before death and resurrection and praying in the desert and burning leaves from Palm Sunday. But what I remember is this power and this feeling and almost like a little collapse inside of me when she gave me some of her ashes. Like, right there, she could perform something sacramental, and I could be a part of things, and a part of this long history of people smudging and praying and confessing and hoping and it didn’t have to be earth shattering or The Great Return to Christianity or The Great Confession of Sin. It was just me and my friend Nicole who is an amazing minister and this moment or more like a washing over me of this circle of life and death and hope and return and leaving and all of it. It was both a big deal and not a big deal.

So at the last minute yesterday I called the local Disciples Church (our Unitarian Universalist church here does not have Ash Wednesday services) to see when their services were. And amid my sweet little son gobbling on his cookie and trying to read me Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, I was awash again in this flood. I am not sure what it is a flood of, exactly. Of this idea that we are finite, that there always remains hope, that we can begin again, that we are all hurting, that we are invited into a time of reflection and doing things differently, and that this can shape us, and that God is always present. I love our Unitarian Universalist Church here in our new town, but I miss God. For me, I find God in ashes and bread and wine somehow in a unique way that I sort of feel like I need. Who knows why.

What I like somehow is that there are not Answers to be given on Ash Wednesday. At least not how I have experienced it. We are together. We anticipate the crucifixion. We acknowledge our brokenness. We sit together and confess. We sing. We listen. We leave, marked, together, that we are part of the Church. And, in a day, that fades and we are back to our unmarked selves, trying to love, trying to pray, trying not to eat chocolate or whatever other big but really absolutely small thing we’ve decided to do for Lent and we are just praying and waiting and preparing both for something terrible and tragic, yet knowing that only through that can there be new life. For whatever reason, that makes a lot of sense to me right now.


Still here

September 7, 2010

Even though my blogging has slowed from a trickle to little, rare droplets, I still write posts in my head and long to reenter blogging both to have a place to work out my own thoughts and to rejoin the rich conversations of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere. I am at South Station preparing to take the commuter train home after my first full day of teaching where I rambled rambled rambled. I so much prefer working all of my thoughts out in written form, reorganizing, editing, and proof reading again, sending out in a careful and safe email where at least my attempts at humor fall flat later, where I do not have to see the lack of laughter.

I am several months into being the president of our congregation, a role that I treasure and, at the same time, wonder what exactly I was thinking in terms of time management. Such is life though, ehh? We follow our callings and our passions and try to fit as much into  life as we can. I am lucky in that our congregation is gracious and supportive, and amazing in that there is minimal bickering, so I am learning a lot, and loving church life even if it was not the wisest choice in terms of being careful not to over-commit.

And, painfully, my general exams for my doctorate are coming up in October. It is my hope, at this point, that I am prepared enough not to fail or at least almost prepared enough not to fail. But I wish I felt solid about them rather than sickly and worried.

And our boy. He is a little person now, not a bundle of baby. He has is own baby doll which we have creatively named Baby. He loves his frog boots and insists on listening to Fat Boy Slim all. the. time. Which was cute, but now I am tired of Rockafeller Skank and Not From Brighton. When I try to put on Natalie Merchant he says no no no nonononono. It is such a joy, though, that he can say what he wants. Cracker. Baby. Mama. Dada and so on. He is at a daycare with goats and chickens, several bunnies, cats and a dog, and he loves loves loves the animals. And there are five other children that love him and rub his head and say Eli Eli Eli Eli. Which still scares him, but it is sweet none-the-less.

My parents, who are now, primarily, The Grand Parents, visited and doted on our boy and cuddled him and read him endless books and put the rocks in the bowl and out of the bowl and in the bowl with him 201,883 times. He ran to the guest room this morning and said, “Where go?” So we miss them.

I have more thoughts. I think about vegetarianism and animals and our recently rescued cat that I don’t really want, and how to handle/think about our fish tank at church and our mouse problem at church, and then more generally, about the 1001 moth larvae I recently killed in my pantry and the ants I kill that crawl around our living room and the spiders that live in our house that I want to move out but I feel really bad smooshing yet I do not have the time to lovingly transport each one of them outside. How to love the earth’s creatures, even little tiny ones that seem gross to me, and still have a house and church that does not crawl with such creatures. How to balance the beautiful look of a fish tank and swimming little magic animals, with the fact that I think they really don’t like it in there and would be happier in the ocean or a lake. I think about the exceptions I make when I eat eggs and the little chickens that suffer quite the life of misery for my breakfast sandwich. I want to do less harm in the world. But it is hard.

I think about how sad I am about all the fear and unkindness and hurt and harm and injustice expressed around the Muslim Community Center near the site of 9/11… How naive I was about the public’s understanding of Islam. And how easy it is to express outrage at such things from my comfortable little life – how little it costs to feel bad about such things and how I somehow probably think that Feeling Bad and Knowing Better somehow at least a little bit absolves me from my complicity with the injustice in our world. It is so easy to write blog posts of lament, preach to the choir, sign petitions and repost things to facebook…. Yet, my middle class, pretty-easy-relative-to-most-lives is contingent on cheap oil, using too much of my share of the world’s resources, and accessing my white, class, pass-as-heterosexual, have-a-Christian-heritage privilege which is all wrapped up in the U.S.’s history and present that produces/reinforces the sort of hysteria we see around Islam, immigration, and race politics around the presidency. I don’t write this to be all dramatic – oh what shall we ever do – but simply to put it out there. I struggle with it. It seems to easy to let me off by just saying we can’t solve everything and do everything, even though I know we can’t, I guess I still feel called to be with the impossibility of living a life of comfort that I want while it does violence, albeit pretty indirectly. My partner and I talk about this all the time – if you are somehow more removed from the harm you cause, are you better than those closer? Or just more easily able to distance yourself from seeing and doing with your own hands the harm that is done for you, from a distance, for a price. I’m not sure there is a terribly good answer. I was touched by someone in one of my classes who is writing a paper and he wrote that he would like to explore thinking about humanity “in ways the depend less on ‘agency,’ ‘autonomy,’…and more on malleability and incomprehensibility – a wounded soul that is also the site where God works.” Maybe I just want to make sense of my profound sense of woundedness and all the woundedness I see, but somehow it feels like a relief to me to give in to the incomprehensibility of it all and hope that God can work there.

This is not meant to be a “downer” post. My life is so wonderful and so rich in so many ways. But I sit with these questions a lot. Especially as I lead in my congregation and in teaching and in raising our little cuddle bug, I am even more aware that my responses to these struggles aren’t just for me, but that they will influence others. I want my life to match my desires for love and justice. It is so much harder than it seems.


Communion with the Little One

May 10, 2010

So, I was never really one of those moms who was like, “And, the second I saw him and held him in my arms, everything changed. My whole life was different and new and I would do anything for my baby.” This is not to say that I did not love my little cuddle bug A LOT when he was born. I did. I was thrilled to have him and I still am. But, for me, I was pretty much the same person before he was born as after he was born, except with an adorable baby and sleeping much less.

I am also not a mom that is totally awed by all the amazingly wonderful and brilliant things my baby does. Yes, he is really quite cute. And seems to be a bright little bee. But I am pretty low key about him and his magic. I think in a pretty good and healthy way.

I say all of this for two reasons. First, because sometimes I feel like maybe a sucky mom because I don’t run around saying how wonderful life has been since he has been born and how it has changed everything and the sun rises and sets differently and all. I think there is this cult of motherhood that tells women that you have to just love your child and have him or her change your world and it will be immediate and like magic. I think this sets people up to feel pretty terrible when they are in month number six (or in my case, 14) of not sleeping through the night and all of a sudden your house is chaos all the time and you only see your partner in passing while one of you is changing a diaper and the other is… oh, I don’t know… studying for her general exams in October. Anyway, so on Mother’s Day when everyone is crooning about how magic mothers are and how much they love mothers and flowers and roses and all of that, I guess for whatever reason I felt inspired to bring it down a notch for all those moms out there who sometimes wonder if they are doing it right even though the fireworks of love and peace and perfect joy didn’t/don’t go off like they “should.”

The second reason I wrote about all of this is so that the next thing I am about to say about my little toddler boy doesn’t sound like the ultimately cheeziness. That is, it isn’t my style to go around crooning about the boy, so when I say something like how he taught me a really profound lesson, it doesn’t get lumped into the pile of 101 profound and beautiful things my baby did THIS MORNING.

Geez. I did too much lead up to this. I do this in my papers too. I go on and on in the intro setting everything up and then I have two and half sentences of substance to say.

Anyway, our boy loves to drink out of glasses. Sippy cups are okay, but he really prefers to drink either water or apple juice out of the big glasses that are obviously too big for a one year old. But we’re pretty flexible, so we do it even though it often means that when he is done he pulls the glass away pretty fast and the juice or water gets on him or us.

And he has taken to insisting on sharing his drinks, and then tonight, his strawberries. He is insistent – he takes a drink, and then puts the cup to mine or my partner’s mouth in a very insistent way and we take a drink and then he takes another drink. He mushes the strawberries up between his fingers and sort of shoves one in into my mouth, with such a pleased look on his face, and then squishes one up and puts it in his mouth. And somehow this led me to “get” communion in a way I never have before. Regular readers of this blog know I have a highly ambivalent relationship with Christianity and can never decide really if I am Christian or not. And for some reason I have always loved communion – there was something that was so special about it – like this thread that went back throughout my life and childhood and then back throughout time. It felt like a very connecting sort of ritual. Like I was part of something really special. Yet, for the last few years, I never take part because I just feel like I can’t do it until I know more where I stand. This has been sad for me.

Yet, somehow through sharing my apple juice and strawberries with my boy – I got something. This idea of table fellowship. Communion not as some ritual that we do in church – that marks us as in or out – but as joyful sharing of nourishment, in communion with each other. It is an intimate thing to feed and give a drink to someone else. This is why the bread and wine is not sat out on a table for each person to go up and get themselves, but we give it to each other.

I think with a lot of things, the meaning of a moment can’t quite come through so well in words. The sweet smell of my little boy and his juice. His pre-linguistic self knowing that there is something important about me taking a drink and then him and then me and then him. The clear joy and satisfaction he gets from making sure that we are sharing – that we are a team, that in many ways we are one.

It helped me better understand why I am so drawn to communion and miss it so much. Yes, yes, I know there is that whole bread/body, wine/blood thing. But that is for another post. For now, I will commune with my little one, and appreciate what he has to teach me about life and love and faith.


On Radical Hospitality at The Journey

November 20, 2009

The Journey is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist blogs. Lots of wise and fun and interesting stuff (and some very sad, hard stuff too). For some reason, this post struck me as particularly poignant, especially as our congregation thinks about the sort of church we want to be as our minister retires:

I want the radically inclusive church. I mean, really radically inclusive.

A few years ago, the big buzz you heard at all the UU things was “Radical Hospitality.” I went home from GA or Fall Conference or wherever it was, and looked on half.com for a book about radical hospitality. Found one. Bought it.

Boy, was this NOT the book all the UU’s were talking about.

Puhleease, we talk about radical hospitality and often what we mean is “don’t ignore people when they come into your church.” That’s not radical anything.

This book I picked up was written by some missionary-type Christians. They talked about picking up homeless folks and taking them home with them. And that, my friends, is radical hospitality. Not that I’m recommending you (or I) do the same. Just don’t pat yourself on the back because you engaged someone in conversation and think that you’re radically hospitable.

I am pretty sure our church is somewhere in between “don’t ignore people when they come into your church” and “pick up people who are homeless and let them live with you.” I’m afraid though we are closer to the first than the second.

That’s the thing about church, right? You like knowing people, you like it being familiar, and safe. But when you get too much of that all of a sudden you are a club of everyone who knows each other and it is hard for new comers to break in.

One thing that stands out to me as the difference between more hospitable and less hospitable churches is if you consider your church to be more like a social club or a good place for all the liberal people in town to get together, or if you consider your church to be, you know, a religious and spiritual home where people come to nourish hearts and souls, love each other, and do the hard work of love and justice in the world as a community of faith. If it is the first (social club) it is harder be radically welcoming because hospitality is sort of hard and takes work and energy, especially if you are just fine with the friends you already have at church and all the committees are filled. If it is the second (spiritual home, community of faith), it seems like it is easier to welcome people into that because nurturing others, reaching out, and caring for people who are seeking and/or hurting, seems like it is part and parcel of growing a spiritual home and community of faith (but not so much part of a social club).

I should think this out more and write on it more clearly. But to be honest, I often blog when I am putting off pressing work, like studying for my general exams, for instance, and so I really should get to that. But I hope to return to this.


The UUA Presidential Election and The Point of Our Faith

June 3, 2009

Well, it is a rare case when I read the always thoughtful and usually (self-proclaimed) conservative UU blog of Joel Monka and agree with it. I learn a lot, but at the end of most posts I am thinking, “Wow, I so don’t agree with that.” But, his most recent post on the UUA Presidential Election has really helped to clarify a lot for me. Interestingly, his post is titled “Something Clicked,” and it helped something click for me. I shall explain.

For the few short years that I have been giving sermons (and blogging), I return to one theme over and over. You know, they say that each preacher has one sermon that he or she preaches over and over in different forms and this is SO true for me. In large part, it is because it is the struggle of my life.

The gist of my sermon that I give repeatedly in different forms is that we (and I very much include myself in this) don’t live out the values that we proclaim in our own lives. We say we believe x, y and z, but our actions don’t often enough reflect this when it gets really hard. My sermons are not so much about “do better” (although that is part of it) but more “how do we come to terms with this?” since, by my estimation, we are (I am) never going to do THAT much better at living out our values. Part of this is that we must necessarily focus our energies of love and justice at the expense of letting other injustices stand. We cannot do it all – we cannot save the world. How do we learn to live with this, and choose how and where to put our energy? (I won’t expand on this, but if you want to read my writing about this you can go here, here or here.)

Back to Joel’s post, he quotes UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski in her post about why she supports Rev. Morales for UUA President. She writes,

I believe we do offer much to a hurting world, and through working with like-minded individuals and alliances can be part of “saving” it — and in the process save ourselves and this faith we love.

Joel argues that this is backwards. He writes,

Religion isn’t about changing the world; it’s about changing the man in the mirror- if you can save him, the world will follow.

Gender exclusive language aside, I think this is what I am often getting at in my sermons and blog posts. It helps me clarify to me how I understand Unitarian Universalist faith, and also helps clarify to me an underlying current I was working against in my sermons and blog posts: that somehow the world needs what we have to offer it. Rather, I would like to reorient our reflection to how WE come up short far too much and it isn’t a matter of “fixing” ourselves and our world, but that we need to be more honest and real about coming to terms with the fact that we are not ever able to fully live up to our values.

While I tend not to be a fan of the idea of original sin, or talk of sin in general, I hear Joel’s point about how it might make sense to focus on living our lives better – dealing with/coming to terms with our weaknesses, imperfections, and brokenness (that some might call sin) – rather than always looking “out there” in the world and thinking WE can save THEM or IT. It reminds me of charismatic ministers that think they have so much to offer the world and their church that they don’t deal with their own life and end up making huge public, damaging blunders because they thought the good they do in the world/church somehow makes up for not doing such a good job in their own lives.

I often feel so frustrated at the sense that we (Unitarian Universalists) somehow have what the world needs – like, somehow Christianity or Islam or Buddhism isn’t cutting it. For me, it is that Unitarian Universalism is where I need to be. And I welcome others in joining me and my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the journey to try to do the hard work of love and justice. This is where I am, but it isn’t because other religions somehow aren’t good enough. I could digress on this, but, bringing it back to Joel’s post and the post by UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski about endorsing Peter Morales, I can see how this relates to Morales’s take on things and the tone and approach he may bring to our association. In the sermon announcing his candidacy, (click here for a pdf of the sermon) he said:

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

While I have no doubt that he did not intend any harm by this statement, I really feel rubbed the wrong way by the idea that “we need a new religion for a new world” (which is, apparently, Unitarian Universalism) and that the “old religions” (by which he seems to mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. Like somehow we’re going to get it right whereas others just don’t have what it takes. He writes

Today Judaism, Islam and Christianity, especially the more conservative parts of them, have become what they first opposed: narrow, rigid and reactionary. They look back and seek to recapture a fantasy of the past instead of embracing a vision for the future.

Aside from the fact that I am not really sure that all three of these religion “first opposed” narrowness, rigidity, and being reactionary, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we are what the world needs – at all – and especially over and against “old religions.”

I am not endorsing a candidate in the election. For me, this isn’t about Peter Morales, but rather about how we envision our faith: are we Unitarian Universalists because it is the context in which we can connect with the divine, become the people we want to be, serve humbly, doing the hard work of love and justice or, are we Unitarian Universalists because we think it is the best religion for our time – because it is what the world needs – what they need. Of course, for me it is the former. Unitarian Universalism is what I need. I think when it becomes the latter we fall prey to the very better-than-thou-ness of other religions who think that they have “it” and others don’t – one of the qualities that so many Unitarian Universalists do not appreciate from other faiths.

I think if we are so worried about growing and being “the religion for our time” we lose sight of the forest for the trees. We are not saving the world. We are not in a contest for the best or fastest growing faith. We fail so often to live up to our visions of our own best selves. Rather, I hope that before we go about telling other people that they need what we have, we take the time to attend to ourselves, our congregations, our hearts, our lives. I think when we do this, we will create healthy congregations and a healthy association that will draw in others who wish to join us on the path.

(Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that we somehow descend into deep navel-gazing. The point is that the outreach work of love and justice grows out of coming to terms with our own lives and grows out of community and spiritual practices that we do in our congregations. It is not the point of our congregations or faith, but some of the the fruit of it.)

Edit: I just want to be really clear here that I am not endorsing – or somehow campaigning against – a particular candidate for the UUA Presidential election. I just don’t know enough about each of them to feel like I can make a good decision – I have been too caught up in pregnancy, birth and raising our new sweet baby to give this election the attention it deserves. There are a lot of issues at hand – many angles to consider – and this is just one of them. For all I know, I have totally misread Morales’s overall thrust and vision – this is just a little sliver of a big and complex picture. If you are going to be voting or endorsing, I encourage you to do  more reading at many different sources and talk to others you trust about this. Peace, E


My Cup Runneth Over

January 19, 2009

To the extent that there were Bibles in my life growing up, it was the King James Version all the way. I was a competitive child and wanted to win every contest, including the Bible verse memorization contest at Mt. Zion (the church where my Baptist family goes and my dad grew up). I memorized this verse in this context (along with, amusingly, lots of verses that are not significant at all but were easy to memorize and, thus, win the contest). This passage still speaks to me even though I rewrite it a bit in my head these days.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

I love this for so many reasons. A God that restores my soul. That invites me to lie down in green pastures, and walks with me along still waters and is with me when I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I don’t even know really much what a rod and staff are, but reading it in this passage, it just sounds comforting. I always sort of skip over the part about the enemies, and get to the part where God anoints my head with oil. Have you ever had your head anointed with oil? I have, and it makes you feel so special. (As a side note, I tried to figure out a way to incorporate this into a healing service at a UU church a few years ago, but it was just a little too much, I think, for the congregation at the time. I have not given up though.) Surely, I will dwell in God’s house forever. And ever. Sweet. I just love the idea that no matter what I do, or where I go, God has built this house of love around me – full of still waters and pastures and, yes, even valleys of the shadow of death – but in all of this God is with us. It is coming back to these sort of verses – with such a long tradition (I can see myself right now saying this along with my Mammaw and my Dad and my Aunt and all the elders of the church who loved me so much) that I miss Christianity and think maybe I could become Episcopalian. I know I can’t. And won’t. And don’t want to. But sometimes the thought sneaks in.

I thought of this verse now because every once in a while I am just knocked over by how much my cup runneth over. I sit in my nice warm apartment, two cats at my feet and one sleeping on my rocking chair pillow behind my head, eating frosted flakes, drinking tea, with my supportive, kind, lovely partner in the other room. We are both working on our computers – him for his job (we feel so lucky he has one these days) and me for my school in my doctoral program that I am so lucky to be a part of. And I just think, geesh. What a life I live. Full of love. From my friends and my family. A faith community we love. Gosh, it even makes me feel thankful for our neighbors downstairs who are playing very very loud base right now. Ah, the lessons they have taught us about loving your neighbor! It is hard when it is literal and your neighbors are not very lovable. But I suppose the idea was to do it especially to those who are not lovable.

So I am thankful this evening. And, as a side note, procrastinating on a paper that is due. But it doesn’t take away from how thankful I am. And how ashamed I am, sometimes, that I am not able to better be thankful for all that is good in my life instead of focusing on all that is not that good. Gotta work on that. Or even, as they say, pray about it. Give it up. Hand it over. And know that I will fail again and again, but must just keep opening myself up to change and transformation and keep in mind what I wrote about for the New Year. Trying harder isn’t always the way to go. So, maybe I will not try harder to be thankful, but see if I wait, and walk in green pastures and beside still waters, listen, rest, praise, and worship… maybe my thankfulness and gratitude have been there, and I just need to be able to see it and let it wash over me.

Or something like that.

Much peace, E


When YOUR Issue becomes THE Issue

September 25, 2008

Or: Vegetarianism and animal issues are not THE most pressing issue in the universe to everyone right now.

I am on the UFETA (Unitarian Universalist for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) listserve, and I think it is a great group. I love the dialogue. I love the passion. The care for suffering beings. I think it is an essential and prophetic voice in our faith community.

But a conversation has been going on recently that freaked me out a bit. I didn’t respond to the listserve because I think some people were voicing what it is I desired to say. But it brought up a good point that I wanted to raise here, more broadly.

The gist of the conversation on the listserve is that a UU church is going to have a chicken raising club or something – egg chickens, not eating chickens. I totally understand why people are not fond of this idea. What happens to the chickens when they quit laying? Where are you getting them from? A mean, terrible hatchery where the male chicks are killed an the laying hens are treated very very poorly? I do not think there is a problem in and of itself of eating the eggs of chickens that are your pets, but I am not so much a fan of raising chickens for eggs, especially if you are going to do away with them once they are no longer good egg producers.

But I digress. The point of this is that I think that it is quite reasonable to identify some ethical stumbling blocks with a church sponsored/orchestrated chicken raising club. But the thing that really freaked me out is the suggestion that those people who oppose this maybe should WITHHOLD THEIR PLEDGE because of this. Stop the presses! Can you IMAGE the mehem that would be caused in UU churches across the nation if people started withholding pledges when they really really disagreed with something?

I can think of five examples of the top of my head:

1. I think sweatshops are bad. Terrrrrrible. Violations of human rights. This is my cause. AND WE ORDERED OUR R.E. t-shirts from a company that uses sweatshop labor!!!!!!!! And the minister’s robe was MADE IN CHINA. And people are wearing sweatshop-made clothes to Sunday services. THIS MUST STOP. We must be consistant, people. We talk about human rights. Justice. Equality. And now the church is supporting sweatshop labor everywhere you look. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. And if it isn’t, I am withholding my pledge until I feel like it is being better addressed.

2. Climate change is coming fast, people! And our church is doing like a zillion things that make it worse. We are all driving to church. Where are the bikes? And the church is sponsoring events on Sunday evening so people drive to church on Sunday morning, drive home AND THEN DRIVE BACK. We keep this place 69 degrees in the winter, which is way too warm. We could very easily keep it at 67 and just bundle up. And, we need to get a new furnace which is more efficient, which costs only $10,000. I know this is a lot to ask BUT A LOT IS AT STAKE HERE PEOPLE. I am sorry, but I will have to withhold my pledge until this church takes more drastic steps to address this VERY SERIOUS problem.

Okay, so I won’t give five examples, but my point is that there are lots of very important issues that are probably not being well-addressed by our churches. We are not perfect. We are sometimes spoiled. We talk a lot about ethical stuff and do-gooding stuff but that is hard to do and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is easier to support things that we already agree with (we are for peace! gay marriage! sex-ed!)  than to do hard stuff we don’t want to do like stop buying sweatshop clothes or turn down the heat or drive less or whatever. I’ll never forget talking with one church I was involved in about socially responsible investing (which, let’s be honest, is not perfect but probably better than just haphazard investing in whatever). And they were like, “Yeah, well we tried that and the returns were really bad.” So, they invest in whatever, including nuclear energy, arms companies, oil companies and so on.

So, my point? Unless your parish committee has decided to open a nudie bar in the parish hall with the church income instead of having an R.E. program, with holding your pledge is really just not a reasonable approach to expressing your wants and desires in your congregation. Discussion – yes. Education – yes. Joining the parish committee/board – yes. Starting an ethical eating club – yes. But if our financial support of our churches starts becoming a “only if you attend satisfactorly to the issue I deem most important” then I say fulfill your pledge this year (since, you know, you did pledge it) and then find a different church that will meet your needs and expecations in every way. (Good luck with that one.) Because being part of a faith community can’t be so freaking conditional. It is a committement, in many ways, for better or worse. I understand that there are sometimes good, legit reasons to find a new church home or even to find a new faith home. But, I hope it would be bigger than issues. Because, when it comes down to it, we are all treading on this earth very heavily – doing harm – enmeshed in a system that is going to be a part of this system of harm. Our goal, I think, should be to lessen our harm, to love, listen, do better, try harder, and, in the end, know we aren’t going to be able to do it all and be humble that we are imperfect people stumbling along on this spinning planet together. And we are going to have to stick in it together – educating each other, learning from each other, listening to each other, being with each other – in order to get anywhere.


Resources for Sharing Information and Sparking Discussion About Vegetarian Issues With Your Congregation

May 3, 2008

A Unitarian Universalist for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA) member, Charlie Talbert, shared this with the UFETA list the other day and I thought it was really well done and could be quite helpful for those that are interested. Please feel free to share with others.

Thanks for raising the vegetarian issue to your group. I’m happy to suggest some resources. Many who want to raise this topic in their congregation find that people often want to avoid the topic, which is unfortunate.

I was telling someone at GA last year about a workshop I had just attended at GA, with Doug Muder presenting. He’s a favorite Unitarian Universalist writer of mine. He made an analogy between effective advocacy and Captain Cook’s strategy for greeting island cultures that he discovered in the 1700s. Some of his crew would leave items of interest on the beach and row back out to their sailing ship. Afterwards the island inhabitants would cautiously approach the beach and investigate what the Europeans had offered them. They might then similarly leave items they considered valuable on the beach and retreat, giving the Europeans an opportunity to row back in and have a look. This careful, non-threatening approach facilitated communication and mutual understanding between these groups where who were wide apart in traditions, culture, and language.

As you probably know, some Unitarian Universalist congregations have experienced some controversy over the idea of banning meat in the congregation all together. I believe it’s ineffective to try to ban animal products at congregational functions. The suffering inherent in animal agriculture is too entrenched, too accepted by even Unitarian Universalists – who have a heritage of questioning traditions that institutionalize cruelty – to be challenged so directly.

Members of UFETA regularly share what’s going on in their congregations on this issue, and exchange information and ideas. Perhaps some members of your fellowship would be interested in joining the listserve. UFETA’s website is at http://www25.uua.org/ufeta/. Instructions for joining the listserve are at http://lists.uua.org/mailman/listinfo/ufeta

Advocacy can take two approaches that can be summed up by two words: unnecessary suffering.

It’s the “suffering” part that sometimes makes people squeamish. That’s why much of our denominational advocacy focuses on the “unnecessary” part – that shows a vegetarian diet can be tasty, satisfying, and healthy. We have presented “Cooking With The Compassionate Cooks” at my congregation here in Kenosha and one close by in Racine.

This DVD is upbeat, entertaining and full of information about nutrition, basic ingredients, and delicious but simple recipes. We have prepared some of the dishes demonstrated in the DVD and served them afterwards. We have also displayed the ingredients (e.g. tofu, seitan, tempeh) with information about where they can be obtained in our community.

The founder of Compassionate Cooks began her cooking classes at First Unitarian in Oakland when she was a member there. She is now well known in vegetarian cooking circles and has appeared on the Cooking Channel. You can see more information about her and her DVD at http://www.compassionatecooks.com/ .

Vegetarian food can be not only tasty and satisfying, it can be much healthier than a diet with animal products. People are increasingly accepting this, but the protein and other nutrient myths are still out there. No group I’m aware of challenges these myths more authoritatively than the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine. Their website offers a lot of useful nutritional information that can be downloaded or purchased for sharing with others www.pcrm.org/.

But showing the pleasures and health benefits of a vegetarian diet is not enough to persuade some people to consider their food choices. They like to eat animal products. They’re tolerant of those who don’t, but they don’t what to be “told what to do.” To them, this is a “freedom” issue, and freedom is fundamental to Unitarian Universalism. In my opinion, it’s an admirable “live and let live” ethic that – in this case – humans want to apply selectively: to themselves but not to other animals.

The moral issue is a sensitive one, but I believe it’s a legitimate one for religion to consider. In my observation, it’s usually the more conservative people who object to it the most, which is why Matthew Scully’s writings are so important.

Scully is a political conservative and former senior speechwriter for President Bush. His 2002 book, Dominion – The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, has influenced many people, including me. You can get an idea of his considerable writing abilities from his 2005 cover story “Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism – for Animals” for Patrick Buchanan‘s magazine, The American Conservative. www.matthewscully.com/fear_factories.htm. Our UFETA chapter has made this article available at our church. The word “conservative” can spark some curiosity in a UU congregation!

Our UFETA and Green Sanctuary chapters have also displayed this pamphlet www.veganoutreach.org/cc.pdf on their table. It has drawn attention particularly among our congregation’s younger members. Vegan Outreach is a primarily volunteer organization that hands out over a million of its pamphlets every year at colleges and high schools, primarily in the U.S. Its posters were used in the two-page advocacy ads that UFETA sponsored in the UU World in May 2006 and May 2007. (This May the UU World will have a statement signed by 40 or so Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians.) We also make available PETA’s Vegetarian Starter Kit, which offers a concise overview of the issues and some very appealing pictures of veg food.

I would also recommend the DVD Peaceable Kingdom. It has influenced a number of people in our congregation, including our minister and her partner, who went from vegetarian to vegan after seeing it. It’s produced by Tribe of Heart www.tribeofheart.org/, and its other film, The Witness, is also outstanding. You can see a trailer for the yet to be released newest version of Peaceable Kingdom at www.tribeofheart.org/tohhtml/pk3previewhome.htm. Tribe of Heart is not distributing the older versions any longer.

If your fellowship has Christian members, then I would recommend materials from the Christian Vegetarian Association www.all-creatures.org/cva/ . Its DVD “Honoring God’s Creation” is wonderful. It includes Fr. John Dear, a board member of the CVA who coincidentally will be speaking at GA in Ft. Lauderdale on Jesus and the question of peace.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations provide lay led services. If yours does, then members in your fellowship may want to use the opportunity to provide a sermon. Some of these are available at the UFETA website under the “Resources” tab.

As you may know, one of two Study Action Issues that the GA is currently considering for 2008-2011 is “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”. If it is selected as an SAI, this would present an excellent opportunity for discussion in your fellowship. You can find more information about it at www.uua.org/socialjustice/issuesprocess/currentissues/55648.shtml

Thanks for taking the time to raise this very important issue in your congregation.

-By Charlie Talbert, May 2008