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.

Advertisements

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.


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


a prayer

April 8, 2008

I have posted a few other prayers here before and hope to do so more regularly. Please feel free to use without attribution in a religious service. If you reproduce online, please link to this blog and include attribution.

*

all of all

love of all love, peace of all peace, depth of depth

so often, in the midst of all we do, as we are washing dishes… sending email… going to work… and doing all the things we do day in and day out,

we can forget that our time here on this earth is both a gift and a miracle.

do not let us forget.

because sooner than we think, a tomorrow will come and it will be our last tomorrow and we will have missed the miracle. we will have emailed, and worked, and complained, and watched tv through the miracle.

we will have let the sunrises, the fresh air, the warmth of a bed, the taste of our orange juice, the first snows, and the cricket chirping slip by as we go about doing all of our so important things.

we will have let our pain and struggles and our tasks and achievements and our accumulation of things obscure the enchantment and richness that can be life.

love of all love, peace of peace, depth of depth –

let us find the holy in all that makes up our life.

let us slow down. stop doing. and learn to simply be.

may we find the holy in our coffee, in the spider whose lovely eight legs carry her effortlessly over her web, in the kiss goodnight, in the hot meal, fuzzy blanket, and in the chill of the dark night air. may we be seekers and makers of the holy.

amen and blessed be.


Maybe I am a charasmatic UU?

October 1, 2007

So the search for a home church is on. It is so much harder than I thought it would be and brings up all sorts of issues. One of the main ones is: I want to want to go to my church. I don’t want to go to church because I should join a church. I don’t need to be ultimately fulfilled each and every Sunday. Everything does not have to be perfect, but I need to find a church that I am excited to go to. And for this to work, I need to feel something during worship. And I need to feel welcome and not awkward. This has both to do with me and my mindset, as well as the way churches are. This brings me back to my megachurch days where there was a whole team of people trying to make church welcoming and enjoyable and they did a great job. I know that this can cross the line and turn into “church lite” or all warm fuzzy feelings without grappling with the hard challenges. But, for me, it didn’t. What it meant is that I could bring my coffee to worship with me, people were friendly and nice to me, I could sing along with the songs and feel them, and I could even get so excited about a song or about something that was being said that I could put my hand up in the air and say “amen!” All the prayers were not written out – they came from people’s hearts right then and there. And the sermons were not all written out – they were not polished or perfect, but they were more spontaneous. There was a sense that we didn’t have to control everything, or think everything out, and we could give some of ourselves, even recklessly give ourselves, over to some power that was awesome and overwhelming. I am not trying to hark back to the good old days of megachurch life – there were lots of problems with it too. But I guess what I am trying to express is a desire for something more charismatic. For something to get lost in and overwhelmed by. For something more welcoming and less stifled feeling. It sucks so much feeling like an outsider each Sunday. Is there a way to make visitors not feel like outsiders? Maybe it is impossible. I don’t know.

It is important for me to stress the balance here – this is not meant to be some sort of indictment of Unitarian Universalism. I feel like too often individuals’ struggles with an aspect of UUism turns into a “Gosh, UUism can’t get anything right.” So I don’t mean to imply that there is some sort of crisis and we need to rethink everything. I suppose I am reflecting on whether or not I am longing for something that we are not. For me, and others that want get overwhelmed by God and lost in the spirit and warmly welcomed by people who really seem to want us there, is this just something we need to find somewhere else? Or can this be us? Or is it asking us to be too many things to too many different people?

p.s. Afterthought: I wonder if this has more to do with being in New England than being in Unitarian Universalist churches? Or, if it has more to do with me feeling more at home in churches that are like the one I grew up with and it is really about me and not the churches I’m visiting? Probably all of this plays into it.


Part-Time Church

July 27, 2007

Can I just say how amazingly frustrating it is that so many Unitarian Universalist churches seem to go on vacation for the summer, with either no service or very little ones or ones not regularly led by the church’s minister? We were planning on trying to find a new home church this summer but it is virtually impossible since the ministers aren’t around and aren’t leading services, there are almost no activities, and some churches are 100% closed? I understand this is tradition, ministers need a break, people go on vacation, etc. And I guess I am pretty understanding of that – but what about people that really actually need to find a church home soon? It’s just sort of not very welcoming feeling. For us, we can handle it, although it is sort of frustrating. But what about people who might just be coming to the faith? Or looking for a faith? I hope that this tradition dissipates.


Blessing of the Animals a Success!

April 22, 2007

We held a Blessing and Celebration of the Animals today at our church. It was my idea and I organized it and ran the service and I was SO happy that it went so wonderfully and smoothly. There was some relatively strong anxiety by some people in the church about having animals in the church and all the things that could go wrong. But luckily I think the animals sensed that it was a special time, and they were amazingly well behaved. Not even a bark, for goodness sakes! We played All God’s Creatures Have a Place in the Choir during the blessing, which worked really well. We also had a time of remembrance, where people could bring up pictures of animal friends they have lost and light a candle to their memory. It was very powerful, and such a testament to the strong bonds we form with our animals.

For anyone who might be interested in holding a Blessing and Celebration of the Animals in your church, here is the liturgy we used. Tips and pictures to follow in a few days.

Blessing and Celebration of the Animals Order of Service

Prelude “Doggies’ Policemen” Sinobu Onaka

Opening Words and Welcome by Elizabeth

Chalice Lighting Jeff and Finnegan Stevens
(Note that Finnegan is a tortoise)

Hymn All the Creatures of the Earth and Sky

Liturgical Dance (Celebration of Earth Day) Annie McLaughlin

Children’s Call To R. E. Classes

Joys & Sorrows

Remembering The Animals

Offertory Music: White Goat, Black Goat” Ikuma Dan

Hymn Blue Boat Home

Moment Of Stewardship Greg Stevens

Meditation Rev. Tricia Tummino

(Ten minute warning to RE Classes)

Homily Elizabeth

(Children Return)

Blessing Of The Animals

Benediction

Postlude

Opening Words

In the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”

Let us worship together.

Welcome

Good morning and Welcome to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro. We would especially like to welcome all of our visitors this morning – humans and companion animals. For our human visitors, we invite you to sign the guest book in the parlor so that we know you were here with us. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, please just put a star next to your name.

After the services we gather downstairs for coffee hour and we invite everyone to join us. If you have need of an elevator, we have one in the back and someone will be there to assist you with that after the service.

Just a quick note about our special service today – we are so happy to have all of our animal companions here. Please don’t fret if your animal makes noise during the service. A few barks and meows are normal. If you feel like your friend is getting particularly restless, or needs some fresh air or to use the restroom, please don’t hesitate to take him or her outside during the service and return when he or she is feeling better. There are paper towels and cleaning supplies spread throughout the sanctuary should anyone have need of those, and a trash can and plastic bags in the church yard if you need to clean up after your friend. We also ask that our animal friends only come forward during the blessing of the animals – for other parts of the service, if you need to come forward, we would appreciate it if you could leave your friend with a neighbor in your pew.

Again! Welcome to the service.

Introduction to the Remembrance of the Animals

This is a special time in our service where we can remember animals that are no longer with us. If you brought a picture of your animal friend that you have lost, you may bring the pictures up and set them either on the altar or tables around the altar, and light a candle to his or her memory. If you do not have a picture or memento to bring up, but would still like to remember an animal friend, you may write his or her name and years of life on the cards that are in each pew and bring that up to the altar.

We will begin our remembrance.

Homily – Loving Our Animals

Good morning! Happy Earth day and Happy Blessing of the Animals Day!

I am so happy to be here this morning in the presence of this lovely congregation, and all of our visitors.

As many of you know, environmental concerns and animal concerns are important to me so I am especially pleased, in my last sermon that I will give here during my internship, to be able to talk about two of my strongest passions this morning – animals and our earth.

Now this is something I could talk on for a while – at least an hour or two – but given our limited time here this morning, and the fact that many of our visitors would be even more resistant than some of our regular attendees to an extra long sermon, I just want to bring to our attention two themes for us to reflect on this special day when we celebrate and bless our animal friends.

First, I want to remind us why we do a blessing of the animals in a church. I must say there were a lot of people unsure about bringing all of these critters here today – in a church for heavens sake. But, I think that the reason we are doing this here today is not just because it is fun to show off our furry friends or exciting for the children. We are celebrating and blessing the animals today – April 22 – Earth Day in order to affirm our seventh principle – to honor and respect the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.

We are affirming that church is not just a place about people – about individuals, or even about human communities, but that our earth, and the beings of the earth are important to us, are holy, and actually belong right here in the sanctuary. We are honoring our animal companions not only as fun companions, or beings that bring us joy, but we are celebrating them and honoring them because they are sentient beings with whom we share our life and our earth. They are members of our family, and members of the family of the earth – in some cases, companion animals can serve as spiritual guides – as therapists – we have relationships with them, and they with us.

This morning we are celebrating those relationships, that love, that connection.

Secondly, this morning, I want to share a story about Chester the cat. I was never able to meet Chester, but he has played an important role in my life. Chester was the cat of a young man who I know in Dayton, Ohio, where I grew up. I mentored Timothy for many years and he was especially caring toward the cats that he would sneak into his apartment – which was in the housing projects of Dayton, Ohio, and didn’t allow cats. About a year after I moved here to Boston, Timothy called me to tell me Chester was very sick. I told him to keep an eye on Chester, and we would see if he needed to go to the vet. Two days later, it had gotten much worse. Chester wasn’t able to walk and he wasn’t eating. Of course, Timothy’s family couldn’t afford a vet, and I certainly couldn’t stand hearing about either Chester or Timothy suffering. So at this news, I coordinated getting Chester to the vet – my mom still lived in Ohio and she went and picked Chester up and took him to the doctor.

The whole process of finding out about about Chester being sick and getting him to the vet took about three days. On day number four I finally spoke with the vet and found out that Chester was in the late stages of Feline leukemia. He had already suffered greatly, she said. There was no time to wait for Timothy to come and say goodbye. Chester needed to be euthanized right away. So, $289 dollars later, I had managed not even to prevent Chester from suffering. He had lived a sad end of his life, in great pain.

For some reason, this got to me. For me, somehow, Chester represented so much pain in the world. I felt so helpless to help even little Chester, much less all the other suffering kitties of the world. Much less the suffering people. As so many of us talk about together here, sometimes the pain in the world can seem so overwhelming. I worried and I fretted, not able to get little Chester – and everything he represented – off of my mind. I agonized – what can I do? There is so much suffering and violence and pain and sadness in our world. How can I even begin to do something about it.

And then, it came to me, that I could do something. It was not a huge something, it would not take back Chester’s suffering. It would be only a small drop in the ocean, in fact. But it was something -it was a response that would matter.

That day I decided to stop eating products from animals – milk, eggs, and meat. For me, it was one way that I could reduce the suffering in the world – to save a few Chesters of our world from suffering.

So, in addition to blessing and celebrating the animals that we have here with us today, I would be remiss if I did not share my hope for all sentient beings – that some day, all sentient beings would live lives free of violence, and full of love. The less harm we bring to all animals, the less violence is in our world – the more love.

This morning I am making no proclamations about how we must live, rather I am inviting us to consider what it means to fully live out our seventh principle – to honor and respect the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. We can not do it all. I am not perfect. None of us are. All we can do is what we can do. But, as we go about the hard work of love and justice in our lives, let us take our animals friends into consideration when we think about what we can do.

Today, is a wonderful beautiful spring day – we are celebrating our companions that we have here today, those whom we have lost, and those billions of animal friends who live lives not a lot unlike Chester’s last days.

Let us live as fully in love – in love of the earth, in love of all animals – as we can, recognizing that the more our lives reflect peace, and gentleness, and compassion, the more we can bring that to our world.

May it be so.

Introduction to the Blessing of the Animals

Now, we will celebrate and bless our animals. The Blessing will take place while we listen to “All God’s Creatures Have a Place in the Choir” – you can find the words in the order of service if you’d like to sing along. We invite companion animals and their humans to come up and Tricia and I will ask their name and then bless them. If you brought a picture or other item to represent your animal friend, you may also bring that forward at this time and we are happy to bless that as well.

(Note the blessing went something like ” [Name of animal], may you live a long, happy, and blessed life” – and we would touch the animal companion’s head as we spoke the blessing.)

Benediction/Closing Words

May we show love in all our actions

May our lives be a testament to peace and compassion.

Let us call each other to be our best selves.

And may we daily celebrate the earth and her creatures.

Amen and Blessed be.