ministry & the seven year itch.

3 Feb

A sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on January 31, 2016.

Though it normally takes about 3-4 year to complete seminary, it took me seven. I was on the turtle track – I worked full time through most of it, which, though it gave me the advantage of not graduating with any debt, meant I only took a few classes at a time. We also moved halfway across the country (from Virginia to Minnesota), and had two kids. Seven years.

John and my family of origin were stunned. They knew this call to ministry must be the real deal because I had never stuck with anything for seven years. Heck, I hadn’t stuck with much of anything for even 5 years. Most of my previous professional employment had been during the 90s tech boom, when it wasn’t uncommon for people to change jobs every year or two. But really, my history of being someone who samples but doesn’t dig deep goes back to my childhood. While my brother grew up playing soccer and swimming on the swim team, through childhood and college I tried t-ball, swim team, soccer, horseback riding, softball, field hockey, rugby, karate, archery, racquetball, modern dance and I think I am forgetting a few.

So when I stuck with seminary for 7 years, my family knew I must have found my calling. And so it is with a sense of awe and wonder that I realize that I am over halfway through my seventh year of ministry with you. Whoa! That was fast!

“The Seven Year Itch” is a saying that suggests that happiness in a any type of relationship declines around the seventh year. So it is perhaps not surprising that the average settled ministry is 7 years. Between that, and having been back from my sabbatical for a year now, if I were going to be in search for another settled ministry, I would be doing so. I’m not. In fact, far from it. I’ve found myself recommitting to my ministry with you over the past few months in particular. So I thought it was the perfect time to assess how this ministry together is going, and what I see for our future. *Ahem*

Dear First Unitarian Church,

It is hard to believe we are close to completing seven years together. I keep counting it in my head, and on my fingers, just to be sure. But math doesn’t lie: It is indeed seven years.

I remember January of 2009, both as if it were yesterday and as if it were a lifetime ago. After exchanging packets of information with the search committee here, and after a couple of telephone calls, I had my first real-life experience with First Unitarian Church in what is called a pre-candidating weekend. I met the search committee, answered a lot of their questions, and they answered a lot of mine. We ate together and laughed together. And you’ll not be surprised to hear there were even a few tears. I preached that weekend at the church in Bloomington, Indiana. We had a great conversation after the church service at a Turkish restaurant where the search committee learned that one of the biggest controversies at the church was something I had written my seminary thesis on! It was quite a kismet moment.

I remember the first time I walked into this building. Though I thought the main door was in an odd place, I immediately was in love. This sanctuary is truly a sacred, spiritual place. And the rest of the building is a wonderful blend of old and new. I loved that the Religious Exploration space wasn’t hidden away in the basement!

The banner parade during my installation as minister of First Unitarian Church.

The banner parade during my installation as minister of First Unitarian Church.

Before the end of the weekend, I had a strong feeling that you all were “the one.” I saw you as an amazingly resilient congregation that was feeling really down on itself after years of controversy. You were so earnest in claiming your faults that it was hard for you to see the many, many gifts the congregation offers. So it was that over the course of that weekend, seven years ago, I began to fall in love with this congregation.

In our tradition, it is the gathered congregation, the covenanted community, that decides whom a congregation calls as your minister. There is no higher authority that dictates it. As a congregation, your job is to find a minister whose gifts match your needs. The minister, likewise, looks for a congregation whose needs match their gifts and whose challenges they find engaging. Though you didn’t necessarily say it outright, early on I got the sense that you were looking for a minister to love you enough to remind you that you are, indeed, lovable. Someone who would see the beauty in the cracks that came from use and endurance, and would celebrate them. This, I knew, was something I could do. And your challenges were ones I felt I could sink my teeth into, that would engage me for many years.

When you asked me to be your candidate, I was thrilled. And after 10 days of immersion with the congregation in April 2009, when you voted to call me as your minister, I could not have been happier to accept.

But no successful, transformative, healthy ministry is a one-person show. For congregation and minister to form a partnership that is strong and enduring, we must all put in the effort it takes to build up the relationship. The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn once wrote: “The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small) and effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another.” They create one another in the relationship that exists between them, a relationship built on trust, love, challenge, growth and celebration.

This is a great congregation. And I am an effective, dedicated minister. And we are creating one another in beautiful and magnificent ways. And in the process, our relationship has grown and deepened over time.

We’ve had our challenges. The first year I was here we had to cut the budget by over $100,000. This meant the elimination of several staff positions and the entire ministry council budget. In fact, those of you who were there may recall that we came into the annual meeting $20k short of funding my position full-time – I would have to go to 3/4 time if you couldn’t come up with the difference. My first year. But you did. We’ve struggled financially ever since then, but we are more fiscally responsible, and we’ve grown back some of those staff positions, at Fair Compensation level. We have funded our Ministry Council again, not just through the collection plate like we had to for several years, but as a part of the annual budget. Last year’s pledges were the highest yet – over 22% higher than they were when I arrived! Though I have yet to receive either a raise or even a cost of living adjustment, my position is no longer in jeopardy of being reduced due to financial concerns and the staff are all paid equitably.

Beyond the financial, we’ve struggled to figure out what it means to do church in the 21st century. We’ve struggled as we have learned how to enforce healthy boundaries and be a safe congregation. We’ve argued, respectfully and lovingly, about both the sacred and the prophetic. And, I think, we come out of these conversations with a newer appreciation for one another. I know I feel appreciated by you. I hope you feel appreciated by me.

But the challenges are far outweighed by the privilege I have experienced being your minister. You have inspired me to grow into my best self – allowing me to be authentic and vulnerable at the same time. Where else would I have been able to bring my roller derby team in to skate, during worship! You encourage me to be a whole person, to balance my work and family life, to take a prophetic voice in the community, and so much more.

In these 7 years, we have gotten to know each other. We’ve celebrated when children are born or graduate from high school. We’ve mourned together when someone beloved dies. I’ve been called out in the middle of the night to be there for you in emergencies, and when my family has had struggles, you’ve given me time to focus on being there for them. We know each other well enough to know that none of us are perfect – I have made mistakes, as have you. But through it all, we continue in relationship.

There are not many congregations like this one. Speaking with a colleague the other day, I was griping about something probably inconsequencial, and he asked what I celebrated about the congregation. When I began listing all the amazing stuff we have done and are doing, I saw his jaw drop deeper and deeper. “Wow!” he said “That sounds like an AMAZING congregation!” You got that right, I told him.

I wish there were more congregations that support their minister like this one does. I wish there were more congregations that were willing to try new things, like this one is. I wish there were more congregations that rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD, the way this one does. I wish there were more congregations who put both their money, and their bodies, where their mouth is, like this one does. And I truly wish there were more congregations that have a culture of mutual respect, support and collaboration like this one does between lay volunteers, professional staff, and the ministry team.

All these things we have done together – the successes and the failures – have grown me as a minister. You’ve supported me when I have participate in professional development, and when I have taken leadership roles among both my colleagues and now as a Board member for our MidAmerica Region. I am a mentor for other ministers, and leading a new Right Relations team at our MidAmerica Regional Conference in April. I am preaching at a colleagues ordination at the beginning of June and am leading Opening Worship at our General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio later that month. And more.

And all the accolades that I get come straight back to you because remember, great congregations and effective, dedicated ministers create one another. I am who I am as a minister and as a leader because of how you have nurtured me and allowed me to minister to you, and encouraged me to minister to the larger community, both UU and local. And now you are starting to get the national recognition that I believe you deserve, as well.

So seven years in, I am still totally in love with you. Not a honeymoon kind of love – I know way too much about how the sausage is made for it to be that. No, this is a love that is well aware of and accepts imperfections, while at the same time urging constant growth. The search committee did a wonderful job: we are a great match, and we love and respect, and even admire, one another. These seven years have been incredible.

So now what? Where do we go from here?

In learning about successful long-tenure ministries, I discovered that every 7 years or so, the minister and congregation must re-invent themselves. So a minister who has stayed at one congregation for 20 years has not been the same minister all those years, and neither has the congregation. In fact, they have each had 2 or 3 different incarnations or phases. I know that I am entering the next stage of my ministry with you, and I want to share what I think it will look like.

The first 7-year phase I suspect we will look back on as the trust and confidence-building stage. We got to know each other, built our relationship, and we loved each other until we began to appreciate our gifts and share them more freely.

This next phase, I suspect, will be the going-deeper phase. Our trust and faith in one another will be put to the test. We will be trying a lot of new things together. We have to. You have heard me preach about how church is changing – how the structures and mechanisms that were useful in the 1950s are no longer working today. We have to figure out what church looks like in the 21st century. Truly, we must either thrive, or consign ourselves to dying. There are dying churches all around us as evidence. But to thrive, we must try new things. Things that might make us uncomfortable. Things that will, some of them, fail. So we’ll have to pick ourselves up and dust each other off and then try the next thing. Sometimes, I might hurt you. And sometimes, you might hurt me. And then we will come back together again in love and respect and admiration, and we will try again because we trust each other – a trust that took all these years, and all these ups and downs to build.

Some of you may observe that we’ve already started taking risks, and that is definitely true. And, I would assert that this risk taking capability is one of the best, most life-giving talents of this congregation. It is the main reason we thrive today.

Some of the risks we are going to be called to take in the near future are going to be structural. We need to try different staffing configurations, both for volunteers and for professional staff. Like other congregations, we struggle to find people to fill the church leadership roles, though we have plenty of people who will show up for one-time volunteer opportunities. How do we adjust to this new reality? How do we adjust to the reality that we are a 200 member congregation that wants the level of programming of a 500 member congregation? Are we able to continue offering all that we do? Do we have to cut back on some things in order for other areas to thrive? And what about funding? We are not, in any way, a poor congregation. Not only do we have an endowment, we have zero debt and no mortgage to pay. But still we are struggling. How do we look for outside streams of revenue? This is something congregations are not used to doing – they have always depended on being supported by the membership. But in these changing times, we need to look beyond the congregation, too. So some of the risks will be structural in nature.

Other risks we are called to take together are going to be spiritual. How do we care for one another? What does it mean to be radically inclusive? What does it mean to be a force for good in Kentuckiana? How can we grow Unitarian Universalism beyond our walls? How do we adapt to a changing religious landscape that is around us? Indeed, these are the very questions our long range planning team is having us begin to address.

This is last question, about the changing religious landscape, is where my passion lies these days. It centers around the sustainability of liberal religious institutions. And I have some plans I am excited about. To help learn more in this area, I have decided to continue my education. This fall, I will begin studying online at Indiana University for a masters degree in public administration – sort of like a business degree for nonprofits. I believe that congregations have much to learn from the nonprofit world as we move into this changing religious landscape.

This means I will soon be coming to you with even more ideas. Lots of probably wild and crazy ideas. I hope that this congregation can be my laboratory, where we take traditional church structure and blend it with nonprofit best practices and try new things. In this way, we’ll not only be ensuring our own survival and sustainability but what we learn will be of benefit to other congregations.

And in the meantime, of course, we will continue with all the OTHER good stuff that is going on. The stuff that is life-giving and life-saving. The stuff that makes this a church and not just a justice-minded social club. Since I’ll be in school, I am hoping that you will be able to utilize some of the skills you learned to care for one another during my sabbatical. We will be able to support each other, as we continue to grow together, and create one another as great congregation and effective, dedicated minister.

Growing up, I remember reading Dear Abby. Whenever forlorn partners would write to her, she would inevitably ask them if they are better off with, or without, their partner. Though we have had our ups and downs, without a doubt, I am better serving you than I would be elsewhere. And, truly, I think you are better off with me than you would be with another minister. We have created one another, great congregation and effective, dedicated minister, and what we have created is a wonder to behold. It has been quite an amazing seven years of knowing you and of ministering to you. I look forward to what the next years will bring together.

With much love and admiration,

Your minister, Rev. Dawn

the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

14 Dec

That Which May Seem Like The End…
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 13, 2015

Listen here:

Today, we’re going to do a bit of time travel. But I don’t have a hot-tub, or a delorean. Nor do I have either a tardis or a phone booth. Instead, we are going to have to use our imaginations.

We are going to go back 30 years. Right here, on this very corner of 4th and York.

So close your eyes, let me do some magic. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus. And now open them up.

01-pre1950So, here we are standing outside the church, in 1985.

Wait, what? That’s not 1985! I think we overshot it by about 50 years! Okay, close your eyes again, and let’s try again. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus.

02-pre-fire from 800Ok, close enough. So here we are, standing on the balcony of the 800 building across the street, looking down at First U. As you can see, the old steeple is still in place, and the old peaked roof. Where our church library is now, in 1985 there green space between the church and Heywood House.

If we go inside the church, we will see it looks a bit different, too.

03-Sanctuary 1985This is what our sanctuary looked like in 1985. You can see that it is lovely – old, dark wood, lovingly oiled and polished since 1872. We faced a different direction then – those windows on your left were the main doors, and the pews faced east, towards what is now the courtyard. The bay window area in our social hall is where the chancel, or stage area, was, with the pulpit, and an amazing organ that was only about 15 years old.

The sanctuary was very different. And the church was different, too. Rev. Bob Reed, the beloved minister who had served the congregation for 17 years, had left just a few months earlier, and the congregation was in search for a new minister. The interim minister was the Rev. Virginia Knowles, the first woman minister to serve the congregation. Anne Miller was 17 years into the 23 years of service she gave as First Unitarian’s Director of Religious Education. Penny Nader was president of the board. The congregation had about 300 members, about 50% more than our membership today.

December 13, 1985, exactly 30 years ago, was a Friday. The weather was a bit cooler than average for December in Louisville, with the high in the upper 30s and the lows in the low 20s.

That Friday night, there was a pizza party for the church youth. They were here, eating pizza, having fun and fellowship. Carol and John Findling were the chaperones.

As the evening wore on, the temperature outside continued to drop. A cold front was moving in. But the church was toasty and warm – Carol even remembers thinking that it was a bit too warm. The boiler had been acting up but a technician was scheduled to come the next week to service it, and there was nothing else that could be done. As the pizza party wrapped up, Carol and John locked up the church and headed home.

Temperatures continue to drop – almost to the single digits.

And then, something happened. We still don’t know exactly what, though suspicions fall on that pesky boiler.

The fire department got the first call at 3:27am, and the second alarm followed 14 minutes later. First Unitarian Church, at 4th and York, was on fire.

04-nightime burningIt wasn’t long before between 65-75 firefighters and 15 pieces of fire apparatus were on site, trying to contain the blaze. A wall collapsed on one firefighter, David Miracle, and he was taken to the hospital with severe injuries and burns. 2 other firefighters were sent to the hospital but soon released. Many others suffered injuries sustained from the combination of water and 12 degree temperatures outside.

As it became more and more clear that the church would be a total loss, firefighters worked to make sure it didn’t spread. There were watchers in nearby buildings and up on ladders, making sure sparks didn’t ignite the roofs of other nearby buildings.

The church sexton and his family, who lived in Heywood House (which is where the parlor, church offices, and some of the RE classes are today), were evacuated along with their cats. Firefighters continued to hose down Heywood House, and miraculously it didn’t catch fire.

07-smoulderingAs the sun rose, the scene was one of devastation.

Breaux hall, the social hall that was where the courtyard is now, was gone. The RE classrooms were gone. The sanctuary was gone.

For 114 years, the church had stood at 4th and York. And now it was gone. All that remained were the stone walls.

08-firefighter in rubbleThere were at least three miracles in this fire. The first: David Miracle, the critically injured firefighter, would heal and return to his vocation. The second: that Heywood House, mere feet from the inferno, suffered only minimal damage. The third miracle is the one that would help guide the congregation and give it fortitude in the years to come: The wayside pulpit sign, which still today is on our York Street side, provided this advice:

05-wayside pulpit with firefighterThe place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

Arrangements were quickly made for the congregation to worship at Spalding, just a few doors down, on Sunday morning. The planned service was scrapped, and Rev. Knowles instead provided space for people to mourn – it was a service not at all unlike a memorial service.

And just as quickly, Calvary Episcopal across the parking lot, offered their church for our Christmas Eve service. All over town, and beyond, congregations who had also experienced fires reached out to First Unitarian and shared what they could.

In the days that followed, firefighters braced the walls so that they wouldn’t fall in the road or on passers-by.The burned steeple was removed.

12-rebuildingIn the bitter cold, congregants salvaged what they could from the rubble. Some books, some music, but there was not much that could be saved.

Reporters asked Penny Nader and Rev. Knowles: What would the congregation do? Would it stay downtown? Would it rebuild elsewhere?

09-post-fire from 800Almost immediately, the congregation decided to rebuild in place. Insurance would cover much of the rebuilding, and the identity as a downtown congregation was the heart and soul of the church – they had already planted a church in the suburbs. They would stay downtown.

Some were concerned about what the fire would mean for the congregation’s search for a new minister. Richard Beale, a minister in Maine who was looking for a new congregation to serve, found exactly the challenge he was looking for in this fire. He, too, understood the wisdom of the wayside pulpit quote.

In the years that followed, the congregation went through a lot. They met at different places: Spalding, and Plymouth Congregational Church, West End Congregational Church and elsewhere. They brought in experts to design the new building – a building that would be featured locally and beyond for its architectural blending of old and new – a building built with the original walls.

For some, this time of transition was too much, and they left the church. But others stayed. And those who stayed were brought together. They had to choose to stay, and in making that commitment, dedicated themselves to the future of the congregation.

The first service in the new building, in the building we are in now, was held on March 26, 1989. Easter Sunday. We’ll have to wait three and a quarter years for part 2 of this sermon, which will be the story of the new building and where we have gone since then.

First Unitarian Church burned, but like a phoenix (an icon that would continue to inspire) it rose again out of the ashes. The devastation that at first may have seemed like an end, truly became a beginning. And we continue to live this legacy today.

In just a few moments, I will open the floor for reflections from those of you who were there. What do you remember most about the old church? And what did the fire mean to you? But before that sharing, let us return to December 13, 2015. Close your eyes…Hocus Pocus.

IMG_4313Ahh, it is good to be back in 2015. Thank you for time traveling with me today.

Musical interlude

I can only imagine what it might have been like on that night 30 years ago, and in the days, weeks and months that followed. But I know many of you were there. I invite you now to tell your story about the fire and it’s aftermath. How was the fire an ending for you? And how was it also a beginning?


Thank you for sharing your stories. I invite everyone to celebrate these stories, and perhaps continue the conversation, over cake during coffee hour. And as you leave, think about how long these walls have stood here on this corner, and what they have endured, and what stories they might tell were they able.

10-Rebuilding wayside pulpitFirst Unitarian Church has been living it’s mission in downtown Louisville since 1830, and right here at 4th and York since 1870. And we have been worshipping in this uplifting, light-filled, beautiful space since 1989. This congregation has suffered fire, flood and homelessness, but it never lost its identity as an urban church.

May this history and this identity continue to inform us today. And whenever we may find ourselves at an impasse, may we be heartened by the knowledge that what at first might seem like an end, may really and truly be just the beginning.

spirituality & grief.

10 Nov

Spirituality & Grief
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 8, 2015

Listen here:

grief When I received an academic scholarship in my second year of seminary, I was pleasantly surprised. Though I had done well the first two semesters, those more recent grades stood in stark contrast to my undergraduate career. Reviewing my college transcript recently, I saw how I had started my freshman and sophomore years with a few As, but mostly Bs and Cs. And by my senior year, I had pulled my grades up to almost entirely As. But my junior year? That stood out as pretty dismal – a few Cs, mostly Ds and a couple of Fs.

Ahh yes, my junior year of college. It started off with the death of my grandmother. And then a dear friend who was like a sister to me was diagnosed with colon cancer. Someone quite close to me attempted suicide. The long-term relationship I was in crashed and burned magnificently. A friend of my younger brother killed himself accidentally. And someone else quite close to me ended up hospitalized. That was the fall semester.

I remember going to my professors, crying in their offices, begging for extensions (to this day, I remember the ones that were kind to me – kindness matters.)  I couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. I could barely do anything without breaking into tears – much more than I even do now. I coped by staying up late with a close group of friends, going through cheap bottles of wine much too quickly. Not exactly the healthiest of coping techniques.

I hope and pray that that fall of 1991 will always hold the record for the number of losses I experience in a short amount of time. Even that spring, I struggled to keep up. When my parents threatened to remove me from college, that was one more loss I just could not allow, and I managed to pull myself together just enough to eek by.

Fast forward just six months later, and you wouldn’t recognize me. Acing the computer science courses I had failed just a year earlier, and then falling in love with the first anthropology course I took and lamenting that senior year was too late to change my major. By my senior year, I aced all my classes except that one darn racquetball course. So close!

What caused such a turn around? I couldn’t have expressed it at the time, but in retrospect, I see that a large part of the change was due to processing my grief. Grieving all these losses brought me into relationship with my core self. It stripped away all the layers of strength and protection I had carefully built up. And it brought me into relationship with the world – it made me feel a part of something larger. That was one reasons why I became so drawn to anthropology that last year: I became acutely aware of my place in the world, and the lives and suffering not just of myself but of those around me. This same awareness, which was just germinating in that horrible year, would eventually lead me to seminary, and ministry. Though I never would have labeled it as such at the time, I can look back and see that that fall of 1991 was, at it’s core, a spiritual experience for me.

In order to understand the connection between grief and spirituality, let’s do a bit of “grieving 101”. Whether we are grieving the loss of a loved one, the loss of a future we had come to look forward to, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of prestige or influence – when we lose something or someone we care about, we grieve its loss.

When I do memorial services, I do a brief primer on grief in the service. I find it’s helpful to remind us of three things about grief: first, I say that there is no one right way to grieve. Each of us finds our own way. The work of grief is to honor what we’ve lost.

And grief doesn’t really go away. This is the second thing I share. Grief isn’t something people get over. Instead, time teaches us to weave each loss into the fabric of our lives. And as we do, we can become stronger, more compassionate and more loving as a result of the loss. In time we hopefully will come to some new sense of peace.

And finally, I tell people that when we lose some thing or someone that we love, it also brings back every other loss we’ve ever suffered. Our grief becomes compounded.

Applying this to my semester of hell, I can see the growth in myself – in time, I did come to a new sense of peace. But it never went away, as evidenced by my tears these 20+ years later.  And I was never the same person again. I had suffered, and I grew a deeper compassion, and sense of gravitas, as a result. I can feel that younger me, confused and confounded, even when I experience grief today – I feel her less as the number of losses I grieve becomes larger each year, but I feel her there.

Notice how I don’t address Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief in what I say in memorial services. In her book On Death and Dying, originally published in 1969, Kübler-Ross found that there was not much research into the emotional experience of dying, and so she took the stories of terminally ill patients and brought them to the public in her best selling book. Kübler-Ross posits 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Though she never intended these to be understood as a linear progression, the public co-opted them as such, and so people would ask questions like “What stage in the grieving process are you? Are you at Acceptance yet? I’m still stuck in Bargaining…” Additionally, the book was neither a scientific study, nor was it a study of grief in general. It was simply a discussion of some of the major emotional reactions people have to the experience of dying. Yes, grief can be a part of that experience, but death is not the totality of grief. So while Kübler-Ross gave us some language to begin to discuss grief, she is neither the final, nor the only word.

Another model for understanding grief is proposed by psychotherapist David Richo, in his 2008 book When the Past Is Present. He posits that grief is composed of three feelings: sadness that something was lost, anger that it was taken away, and fear that it will never be replaced. While he has much that is useful to say, I feel these three feelings are an oversimplification of grief, and don’t explain the wild and crazy emotional roller-coaster that grief can be.

My current favorite reading about grief is by my friend and colleague the Rev. Mark Belletini. Mark just completed his thirty-seventh and final year in parish ministry. He retired from First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, where he served for seventeen years. He previously served two congregations in California, and was chair of the commission that produced our grey hymnal. Rev. Belletini was one of the first openly gay Unitarian Universalist ministers, and he served congregations in the San Francisco area, during the 80s and 90s – the height of the AIDS epidemic. He recounts going to multiple funerals for friends each week, and what that loss did to him. In his book Nothing Gold Can Stay, he uses his own expediences as a lens through which to look the many varied forms of grief.

Mark writes, that grief, he has come to see, “is not a single feeling in and of itself but a whole symphony of feelings, some seemingly deeply dissonant from each other.” For example, grief can include sorrow, and it can also include joy. We may feel sad at the loss of a loved one, and joy when we remember the love we shared with them.

Grief can include guilt, and it can also include gratitude. We may feel like we should have spent more time with someone who we have lost, and at the same time feel gratitude for what they brought to our lives.

Grief can include anger, and also relief. We may be angry that something we cared about was taken from us, or angry at ourselves for not acting the way we wish we would have. And at the same time we may feel relief that a difficult relationship or job has been terminated, or that a loved one’s suffering has ended.

And so much more.

Grief is a complicated set of emotions, not just one, or two, or even five. When someone grieving comes to Rev. Belletini, he tells them “everything is grief for a while: tears and laughter both, depression and joy, relief and crankiness, desolation and fresh openings into life.”

This doesn’t make it easy, though. In fact, grieving is very difficult work. “The whole effort to focus on the ordinary needs of life—food, laundry, and so forth—in the midst of grief can feel as though you had just spent three hours running…or lifting weights in the gym.” But this effort, and the way it is often hard for us to focus and concentrate when we are grieving, Mark says, also helps to serve a healing function. Mark writes that the way the grieving heart forms a cocoon around itself:

It isn’t anything to fear, although it certainly can be confusing and disruptive…This cocoon creates a delicate but real spaciousness separated from the demands and duties and worries and relentless schedules of modern-day life. It takes room to grieve, room that our frantic, confusing, and narcissistic modern world refuses to notice or offer.

Another colleague of mine the Rev. Gary James, writes about the importance of this kind of cocooning as “the winter of the heart.” He says, “In the winter of the heart one is invited to discover a faith that grapples with pain and uncertainty; grapples with evil, loss, and the mystery of death, and in so doing, discovers hope and a deep joy on the winter-fallow landscape.” Though it is not always possible, and though we often don’t realize it at the time, grieving can give us entry into this winter of the heart and allow us to emerge with a deeper faith. Our grieving, as painful as it can be, can teach us about who we are, and about our connection to one another. As Francis Weller writes, “The gift of grief is an affirmation of life, and of our intimacy with the world.” In this way, grief is something that, well lived, can help us discover our purpose, our reason for being, as Daniel the Leaf put it in our moment for all ages this morning.

In this way, grieving can be a spiritual experience. Henri Nowen defines a spiritual experience as something that doesn’t “remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” Grieving can do this – lead us deeper into the world.  Grieving isn’t easy, but then most spiritual experiences aren’t – they exact some price from us. Experiencing a loss can force us to confront the spiritual questions we may have been avoiding or haven’t taken time to address, the questions that get at the very heart and meaning of life: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live or How can I go on? The answers aren’t always what we were expecting, and sometimes can be quite painful themselves. That was definitely my expereince in college, as I struggled to answer these questions as wave after wave of loss hit me. Singer songwriter Mary Gauthier captures this experience in her song Mercy Now. “We hang in the balance between hell and hallowed ground.” At minimum, we will experience the loss of who we were before, which is something that gets mixed into the grieving process. This can sometimes make us want to shy away from grieving, or deny it. But as Rev. Belletini writes, “Refusing to embrace grief in all its richness is like deciding to hold our breath to live more fully, or pretending we are not thirsty when we are.”

When we are able to embrace our grief, to make room for it in our lives, grief can connect us to the larger world. Because all of us have grieved, have suffered loss. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism says that all of life is suffering. That everyone hurts.

Helen Keller recognized the universality of grief. She wrote:

We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world- the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding.

Moving through the grieving process can force us to find meaning, or at least, make peace. Belletini writes that “Reflecting on our grief can help us understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and in some ways it offers us glimpses of hope by outlining what we are becoming. Thus, grief can be seen finally as a gift that blesses and illumines our mortality and our very existence in this world.”

Would I have understood any of this when I was in the midst of that deep, heavy grief my junior year of college? No. Do I think about it when I experience loss now? Sometimes. Not always. But sometimes, when I am grieving and feel more vulnerable than usual, when I seem to laugh for no reason or cry whenever someone says or does something kind, I do reflect on those words of Helen Keller, and on the wisdom of my friend Mark Belletini. When it seems that my sorrow is too great to be borne, I sometimes feel my connection to the world, and to that great family of the heavy-hearted into which my grief has given me entrance. And I do, inevitably, feel about me their arms, their sympathy, their understanding. And what a gift this is. What a blessing.

When you find yourself in the midst of grief, and I can say with assurance that you will one day if you haven’t already, may you find such comfort and may it give you a glimpse of hope and bring you peace. For to grieve is to love and to love is to give praise and thanksgiving for the life which has blessed us all. May it be so. Blessed be.

embracing mortality.

2 Nov

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
November 1, 2015

Opening Words
excerpts from Mortality by William Knox

O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a fast-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high,
Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.

So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
That wither away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that hath often been told.

They died, ay! they died! and we things that are now,
Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
Who make in their dwellings a transient abode,
Meet the changes they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea! hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud,—
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Summer has faded, now, and we can feel the coming of Winter. Nights have grown longer, the time has changed, the ground has frosted, the leaves are falling. Last night, our children played with death and fear. Pagans celebrated Samhain, the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead. Today, our Hispanic neighbors celebrate the Day of the Dead. Today and tomorrow, Christians are marking All Saints and All Souls days, both holidays commemorating the dead.

This is the time of year we pay attention to death and to dying. A time to be hyper-aware of our mortality. Death, we know, comes to us all.

“Facing Mortality” by Xobius

But it comes to us all in different times, and in different ways. For some, it will come after a long life well-lived. Others will die much too soon. Some of us will go quickly, and others will experience prolonged suffering. Some will have warning, some will have what feels like too much warning, and for others of us, no amount of warning will be enough. Some of us, indeed, are already in this place of contemplation – know that either due to age, or disease, death is knocking.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death…

In between is our lives – the story of our lives. With heroes and villains, ups and downs, plot twists, and more. Forrest Church said that the main task of religion is to figure out how to live knowing that we will die. We live our lives making meaning, finding the way to live our stories. What we sometimes forget is that how our story ends matters, too – it matters to us, and it matters to those who are left behind.

It’s difficult when the end of our lives doesn’t match up with what we hoped the end might be like. It is hard for us, and it is also hard for our loved ones. There is a higher case of depression in our loved ones if, when our times comes to die, we don’t have the death we hoped for – if our loved ones question whether they made the right decisions, the ones we would have communicated to them if we could have.

This is why it is vitally important to have these sacred, values-based conversations with our loved ones about our wishes for the end of our stories. It is vitally important for our own well being, and for well being of our loved ones. Atul Gawande writes “our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”

Gawande is an American surgeon, author, and public health researcher. Wikipedia says that he is a general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, professor in both the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Department of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. And he is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He believes “we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” Gawande’s recent book, Being Mortal, can be a part of that refashioning process.

Being Mortal is Gawande’s fourth book. In a very readable style, he shares his experiences with approaching death not just as a surgeon, but also as a son watching his father’s health decline. He writes about how modern medicine is geared toward fixing, trying one thing after another as a patient approaches death – often subjecting them to increased pain and both physical and emotion suffering. Try this treatment, this surgery, this chemotherapy, doctors suggest – most of which will not prolong a patient’s life in the quality they expect. In the process, Gawande says, “our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

Gawande cites study after study, and his own personal and professional experiences, which show that “people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

These conversations often start with technical details: who do you want to make decisions for you when you no longer can? What sort of medical treatments do you want, or not want? How comfortable do you want to be?

But the conversations don’t stop there. Ideally, the types of conversations we have with our loved ones will include talking about our priorities, knowing, of course, that these priorities will likely change over time as we change. Gawande talks about a patient of his, who evaluated whether or not to have surgery based on whether it would allow him to eat ice-cream and watch football. Those were his goals. If the surgery would allow him to do that, then he would go ahead with it, but if not, he was content to continue the course he was on.  Until he was unable to eat ice-cream and watch football, he said no to the surgery. When he no longer was able to do so, he agreed to the surgery since it would give him back these capabilities – otherwise, he would not have had it done.

Gawande says that

“People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The question therefore is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a health care system that will actually help people achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.”

Part of the problem is that medical advances have outpaced our ability to adapt. When there is no way of no how much longer we have, and particularly when we imagine ourselves as having much more time than we actually do, then “our every impulse is to fight, to die with chemo in our veins or a tube in our throats or fresh sutures in our flesh.” Gawande says “The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register. We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do. But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do.” There is always one more thing to try.

In the process of trying one treatment after another, we rack up massive medical bills. Millions of dollars are spent each year to prolong life without attention to quality of life. “In the United States, 25 percent of all Medicare spending is for the 5 percent of patients who are in their final year of life, and most of that money goes for care…that is of little apparent benefit.”

Gawande writes extensively about hospice, and how it is a way to return to a model of treating the dying with dignity, rather than as a medical problem hat needs to be solved. Prior to the 1940s, most people died at home. But then there was a shift in family life structure, and in the capabilities of medicine, and so most people began dying in hospitals or hospital-like environments. This medicalization of aging put the elderly’s physical safety as more important than their emotional well being. We turned aging into a medical problem that needed to be solved. However, the trend is changing. An increasing number of people are now dying at home, under care of hospice, especially when hospice does not require them to give up other treatment options. Gawande cites an experiment from the Aetna insurance company in 2004:

Instead of reducing aggressive treatment options for their terminally ill policyholders, [Aetna] decided to try increasing hospice options. Aetna had noted that only a minority of patients ever halted efforts at curative treatment and enrolled in hospice. Even when they did, it was usually not until the very end. So the company decided to experiment: policyholders with a life expectancy of less than a year were allowed to receive hospice services without having to forgo other treatments…A two-year study of this “concurrent care” program found that enrolled patients were much more likely to use hospice: the figure leaped from 26 percent to 70 percent. That was no surprise, since they weren’t forced to give up anything. The surprising result was that they did give up things. They visited the emergency room half as often as the control patients did. Their use of hospitals and ICUs dropped by more than two-thirds.

In addition, these patients often lived longer than expected, with a better quality of life.

When we communicate our priorities with our doctors and with our loved ones, our end days are more likely to match up with the rest of our stories. We are more likely to die in the way we want, which is good for our well being and for that of our families.

As a person with aging parents, I found the book to be very educational on how to approach my parents and in-laws as their health inevitably begins to fade. But it also made me realize that I need to have more conversations about my own wishes and priorities with my spouse. Though we have wills and advanced directives already filled out, I anticipate an enlightening conversation about priorities – about how the interventions we would want are very much based on how we would be able to interact with one another, our children, and our families.

Let’s hear from two other people who have found Being Mortal to have been formative in their own processes. First, Vida Vaughn is Assistant Director of the Kornhauser Health Science Library at the University of Louisville. Then we will hear from our own Rita, and her experience of the book.

Reflections from Vida Vaughn
In my role as a clinical librarian I work with physicians on a daily basis who are often confronted with the complexities of aging and dying patients. The majority of them are young enough to be my children. These are bright young men and women well-schooled in the science and art of medicine. The focus of their education has been on preventing, treating, and curing disease. Very little of their didactic instruction has been about having the difficult conversations associated with dying. As Dr. Gawande points out in his book Being Mortal, “The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seems to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”

I have been in many meetings where doctors have wrestled about what their approach should be when counseling patients on difficult choices. Should they tell the patient what they think is best for them with expectations of compliance? The paternalistic approach. Should they be a source of facts and figures but remain detached from influencing the patient’s choices? The informative approach. Or should they act as counselors and contractors, guiding the patient with information and questions that help the patient determine what is best for them? The shared decision making approach. While medical literature generally promotes the shared-decision making approach it is not without its own challenges.

Rarely in the emotionally charged circumstances of aging or death is a doctor interacting exclusively with a patient. The physicians I work with regularly discuss the trials of addressing the desires of family members…especially when those desires contradict that of the patient’s. There are times when the doctor feels confident a plan of action only to have that plan dissolve as a result of second thoughts the patient may be having. My heart has truly gone out to these young men and women as I have listened to their well-intentioned efforts to do what is best for their patients as they navigate the minefield of sorrows, fears, lost dreams, and the non-absolute science of medicine. The only true absolute being that all of us will die at some point.

It was because of my experience with physicians that I felt compelled to share Dr Gawande’s book Being Mortal with some of the physicians I work with. I gave it to the head of the internal medicine residency program with hopes this book would become part of the curriculum. I also shared it with one of my extremely bright residency chiefs upon his graduation with the counsel that part of being a great clinician is the ability to have the hard conversations that go beyond the science of medicine.

In conclusion, I feel Dr. Gawande’s book outlines a path for clinicians, as well as each one of us, described by Dr. Feudtner in a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). For the purpose of this meeting, I took license to expand his thoughts beyond the pediatric population he serves:

“How do we best support patients when they confront these most difficult situations? “The task is simple: be straight forward, clear, balanced, compassionate. Stay focused on helping the patient as they search for a way on their own terms. On the other hand, being fully present in the midst of such strong emotions and stress is a challenge worthy of a lifetime’s determined effort. Yet even amid the tumult of some of the worst life puts in front of us, some of the best that life offers also blooms.”

Reflections from Rita
As my parents (ages 92 and 91) started needing help, one of my 5 brothers sent a copy of Being Mortal to each of his siblings. My brother is a doctor and had met Dr. Gawande at a conference and was impressed with his insight and earnestness.

My folks have been in the same 3 story house for almost 60 years. My father plans to die there and my mother regrets that they didn’t move to a manageable space decades ago.

Dad spends his days confined to 4 rooms and has no interests outside of watching TV. He loves playing cards, but being mostly deaf and becoming more confused has robbed him of the ability to participate often in this simple pleasure. Some days are better than others.

Mother yearns for community connections and human contact. She has become Dad’s caregiver and there is little communication between them beyond his physical needs.

As the only ‘in town’ daughter I am relied upon to do a lot of the weekly support for my folks.
This assistance ranges from the simple, “Here Mom, let me take you to the grocery” to the more intricate assessment of what they really want and communicating that to my siblings without adding what I think they “need” to be safe or even comfortable. I have learned that I can do little to address their deepest fears, but can listen to them.

In my job, I resource over 200 people, many of whom are in their 70’s 80’s and 90’s. The range of physical, emotional and psychological health and mental acuity is astounding.

I know that physical comfort can top safety as a priority, that recognizing who is talking to you isn’t as important as being talked with. I’ve learned that we do not “enter a second childhood” as we age, but we may enter a different way of dealing with our world.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there are as many people afraid of dying as people who are afraid of living too long and that we need to respect each fear.

This book has helped me understand that we (our generation and Americans) are really bad at aging, becoming aged ourselves and dealing with aged people. Part of this is because we no longer live in multi-generational homes where our elders die at home.

Americans are independent by nature, seeking our own happiness, security and paths to success. We no longer inherit the family farm and grandma with it. We move out of town and establish lives elsewhere.

Another factor is our youth/beauty obsessed culture that has negated respect for elders. This change has left a void in how we view the aging process. The fact that we view aging as an illness and that dying is done behind a hospital door, often with only medical staff in attendance, makes it hard to see nobility in the elderly.

I hope to apply these lessons to my own aging process and go out on a high note without exhausting my resources, family or friends.

Conversations with our loved ones and medical providers about our priorities as we approach death or as we age not only help us to have confidence that our wishes are understood, but they help our loved ones in their decision making – giving them confidence that they are doing what we would want.

Embracing Mortality, by Atul Gawande, raises some helpful questions about how to have these sacred conversations.

But you don’t have to read the book to get started embracing your own mortality. On Saturday, November 21, from 10am – 12pm, here at First U, we will help you take a step in that direction. On that day, we will have social workers from Hosparus here with advance directive forms, living wills, and more – not only will they be able to answer your questions, they will be able to notarize the forms to validate them. We will also have the forms required in case you want to donate your body to the University of Louisville medical school, and possibly a lawyer who can talk to you about to when to consider guardianship issues.

This is not just for the retired or elderly – parents of young children, we will be providing childcare because we know that it important that you have these conversations as well. Oftentimes, those of us younger than a certain age forget that disease or terminal illness can strike at any time. Having had these conversations in advance of such a diagnosis can give us peace of mind in case something happens to us or to a loved one.

Death comes for all of us no matter how busy we are, how important we are, how much we run away from it. It is an essential part of our stories. Recognizing and embracing our mortality means understanding this, and having conversations with our loved ones about the type of death we want, about what our hopes are as we approach death. In this way, understanding the finitude of one’s time can become a gift that we give ourselves, and our loved ones. It is, truly, a religious act in that it is a final way of making meaning. May we treat it as such. May we make room in our lives for these sacred conversations.

Closing Words
Because hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;

Because the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

Because to be human means to be mortal, and to be mortal means to die.

Because whether we speak of them or not, there are ways that each of us would choose to live our end days, and ways we would choose not to,

Because of all of this, let us speak of those priorities we have, those desires and passions beyond merely being safe and living longer, so that we might have the chance to shape our story and thus find meaning in our lives.

all in it together.

30 Oct

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
October 18. 2015


RollerDerbyI used to play competitive roller derby. And I’ve found it to be a useful lens through which to examine sociological, psychological and even theological concepts. But in order to understand it as a metaphor, I need to give you a bit of background on how the game is played.

Each team puts 5 skaters on the track at a time, for a period of play called a jam. A jam can’t last more than 2 minutes, so there are a lot of them during the game. Of those 5 skaters that each team puts out, one is called the jammer, and she is the offensive skater – the one who scores points. The other four are the defensive players, and they are called blockers. In short, the jammer earns a point for every blocker from the opposing team that she passes.

So jammers are trying to get past the blockers to score points.

Blockers are trying to both prevent the opposing jammer from passing them, as well as making holes for their jammer to get through.

That is the gist of it.

I played both positions, but I really loved playing the jammer – mostly because she gets to skate really, really fast.

But I had a problem as a jammer – one that is pretty common to those of us in the position: I paid almost no attention to what my blockers were doing. I was a lone wolf, trying to get through the pack of skaters on my own so that I could score points.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was my job to score the points. The pressure started to get to me. The nervous butterflies that I would get at the beginning of each game got worse and worse, until I was almost having an anxiety attack. At that point, I decided to quit jamming and stick with blocking.

A teammate, a fellow jammer who had been doing it for a lot longer than me, sat me down to talk. She explained to me that when a jammer feels like she is a lone wolf, that the burden of responsibility for the game falls to her and her alone, then she is not acting like a team player. This experienced player told me that she had been in a similar situation, and she had learned that she needed to trust her teammates: both the blockers on the track with her and the other jammers on the team when they got on the track for a jam. She said that she had to learn that the responsibility was not all on her.

With this shift in understanding, I was able to return to jamming – and I became a better jammer. Because we are better together. The lone wolf jammer needs to develop trust in her teammates.

So what does all this mean for those of us gathered here? As individuals, and as a faith tradition, many of us struggle with liberal guilt. We feel like it is all on us, and only us, to create justice in the world, to save the planet, to “insert your cause here”. We have a deep sense of social responsibility, one that, at times, becomes a burden of responsibility not unlike that experienced by the jammer.

This burden of responsibility comes, in part, from a misinterpretation in our theology. We can find this misinterpretation when we look at the 5 smooth stones from James Luther Adams. Let me explain.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister, social activist, scholar, theologian, author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. “Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century.” According to Adams, there are five smooth stones that are hallmarks of religious liberalism. They are:

1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly being revealed. We are always learning new truths.

2. All relations between people ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion. We choose to enter into relationship with one another – it is not forced.

3. Liberal religion affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is our responsibility to work for justice.

4. Good must be consciously given form and power within history. That good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.

And finally,
5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope!

Let’s go back to the third and fourth ones for a minute. These are the ones that say that it is our responsibility to work for justice, and that good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. When we hear these two together, we may mistakenly get the idea that it is ALL up to US to make these good things happen – that without our hands, without my hands, without your hands actively working all the time to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, it won’t bend and we won’t get there. It is UP TO US!

This can lead to a paralyzing sense of responsibility, both in our individual lives and as a faith tradition. There have been times when I have stood for 10 minutes in front of the canned tomatoes at the grocery store, trying to figure out whether I should buy the organic ones, or the low-salt ones, or the ones grown in the United States, or maybe I shouldn’t buy the canned tomatoes but the jarred ones instead because then I can reuse the glass jar, or maybe what I should do is by the fresh ones and cut them myself, but do I buy the local hydroponically grown ones, or…

It can be paralyzing.

And not only paralyzing, it can mean we are afraid to take risks, because so much is on our shoulders that we DARE NOT STUMBLE.

So we end up stuck in place, not moving, afraid to go forward. Crippled by our sense of responsibility.

Adams, or JLA as he is most often called, was a huge proponent of voluntary associations. He never would have said that hope rested on only one small group of people – he was talking about all liberal religionists, not just Unitarians. JLA was famous for recasting Jesus’ saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” into “By their groups you shall know them.” He did this to “emphasize that our ethics are revealed not in our intentions or even in our individual actions but in the relationships and institutions we commit ourselves to.”

So it is not our individual or collective actions that will save us, but our relationships. And so, interestingly enough, the solution for our overwhelming sense of responsibility to save the world and everyone in it is exactly the same as the solution for lone wolf jammers in roller derby: Trust. Trust that we are all in it together.

We don’t have to do this work alone, and it does not rest entirely on our shoulders. Far from it!

Instead, we can be part of a larger team of folks working to love the hell out of the world, working to bring about the beloved community, working to bring heaven to earth. There are many different ways of expressing it – and we do say we need not think alike to love alike, right? We can partner with folks who may be compatible on one issue but very different than us on another.

We are living this reality right now at First U by having joined CLOUT – Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. We are the first non-Christian entity to join them, but I don’t think we will be the last. We are partnering in areas we agree on: access to jobs & transportation, the destructive nature of payday lending, and affordable housing. When we gather for meetings, I hold an awareness that several of the congregations we are partnering with do not believe that I should be a minister because I am a woman. And some have taken active stances against same-sex marriage. But we join together to work on the issues upon which we agree because we are stronger together.

And then, we partner with the local LGBT Fairness organizations to work on issues with them. And we partner with the local grassroots organization working to end mountaintop removal. We are constantly looking for organizations to partner with, not so that we can lead but so that we can be faithful allies, standing in solidarity. It not only helps these important organizations, it helps us!

To build trust, we must find partners we can be in relationship with so that we know we are not in it alone. Once we have done that, we will find we have more energy free’d up to take risks, to step into the discomfort, knowing that even if we fail, our partners will be there working towards similar goals. Having partners frees us from the paralyzation we feel when we think we are carrying the burden alone, that it is all on our shoulders.

I experienced this first-hand at General Assembly a few months ago. After a very difficult floor session debating the wording for a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness, there was a Black Lives Matter rally held outside the convention center. Rev. Sekou, a noted Ferguson, Missouri, activist, called on those of us gathered, mostly white, to “be more than allies, but to be freedom fighters.” He gave us directions for how we were going to conduct a die-in – that most people would form a circle around a nearby intersection, blocking traffic. In the center, a smaller group would lay down and perform a die-in, lying on the ground for 4 minutes – one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body lay on the road in Ferguson.

I knew I wanted to participate in the die-in, that I wanted to be a part of what I felt was an important “walk the talk” action with my fellow co-religionists. But I was scared. I turned to my colleague, the Rev. Jan Taddeo, minister at our congregation in Lawerenceville, Georgia. “I want to do this, but I am afraid!” I said. “Me too” she said. And so we clasped hands, and went and lay down in the road for 4 very long minutes. We held hand the whole time. I could not have done it without her.

We are better, stronger together. And we are able to take risks, do things, that we would normally not be able to do.

Whether it is the obligation the jammer feels to score as many points as possible, or the feeling that if we don’t save the world, no one will…No matter where the overwhelming sense of responsibility comes from, when we find trusted others with whom we can partner, we are able to recover from our belief that it is all on us.

And as JLA’s fifth smooth stone tells us, the resources available justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope. May we remember that we are not alone, but instead are in it together.

you are enough.

27 Oct

Catching up on some sermon posting this week.  This was delivered 6/14/2015

Moment for All Ages


Turning on the TV the other day, my mood went from pleasant to grumpy to depressed in a five minute span. The show I’d turned on featured a family doing some amazing and fun activity together. This triggered my guilt that our favorite family past-time tends to be watching movies together – not very extraordinary. Then came a commercial break: first a commercial for a plastic surgeon, then a commercial for a drug that will make sure men are ready for whatever, um, adventure, comes their way, then a tutoring service to help kids get better grades, then a new diet guaranteed to lose that belly fat. At the end of 5 minutes, viewers received the message that they aren’t enough in many different ways: not extraordinary enough, not pretty enough, not virile enough, not smart enough, not thin enough.

Watching through the next commercial break, the messages continued: my hair isn’t shiny enough, my car is too old, my pores are too big. Not to mention the lead story in the local news about a 10 year old picked up by the cops for walking to a playground 3 blocks from home, because heaven knows we are not safe enough.

Everywhere we turn, we get the message that we are not enough. Usually, this message is followed with a remedy: buy this product and it will make you better. But it doesn’t make you better, because there is always another way you are found to be lacking. It takes a tole on our self-esteem.

And it’s not just companies shilling their products that takes a tole on our sense of self-worth. Studies have shown that one in three respondents felt more dissatisfied with their own lives after spending time on facebook. This is because facebook represents what we want the world to see of us – our best, or even imaginary, selves. But when we read other people’s status, we read them like the blind man who felt an elephants leg and decided it was a tree – we don’t get the whole picture, and so we envy other people and fear we are missing out on life when our real life doesn’t compare to someone’s facebook life.

When we are told we are not enough, we often feel a sense of shame. We feel that intensely painful feeling that we are flawed and that therefore we are unworthy of acceptance and belonging. We are unworthy because we can never be good enough, perfect enough, thin enough, powerful enough, successful enough, smart enough, certain enough, safe enough, extraordinary enough. Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher, says that “most of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame. Individuals, families and communities use shame as a tool to change others and to protect themselves. In doing this, we create a society that fails to recognize how much damage shame does to our spirit and the soul of our families and communities.” Shame tells us that we are not enough and that therefore we are unworthy of love and acceptance.

Our ministry theme for this month is compassion. Part of being compassionate, indeed perhaps the starting point, is to have compassion for ourselves. This requires confronting the shame we feel and providing an antidote. And it is particularly fitting to provide an antidote to shame in this, a religious institution, because much of our cultural tendency towards shame originates, I believe, in religion – one particular religious viewpoint that was adopted hundreds of years ago. I am talking about the theologian Augustine, and his interpretation of how Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.

For those you unfamiliar with this story, it is part of the creation story shared by Jewish, Christian and Muslim people: God created everything, and it was good. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a paradise, and gave them one rule: don’t eat from this one tree. Long story short, they did. And they lost their innocence, and were cast out from paradise.

Augustine was an early Christian theologian, writing around the year 400. It was his view on original sin that became church doctrine. He thought that passion interfered with Adam and Eve’s willpower, it made them prideful and foolish, and so they sinned against God and ate from the tree. But this act, this very first, original sin, was not confined to Adam and Eve. Augustine said it is instead passed down to all human beings and that it is this original sin that separates us from God and makes us doomed to eternity in hell.

My colleague, the Rev. Ian White Maher, speaking to a group of ministers recently, eloquently connected original sin to the shame many of us internalize. He said:

One of our greatest fears is of being loved and then having that love taken away. It is devastating because it can…reaffirm those voices in our heads that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t deserve it, that we are always messing things up. Unfortunately, this has also happened culturally to us with the sacred relationship. The primary story for half of the world’s people…is of Adam, Eve and God. And within just a few paragraphs of the story’s opening pages, humans have disappointed God so greatly we are thrown out of paradise and it is forever hidden from us henceforth. We made a mistake and God cannot or will not forgive us and the rest of the story is about us trying to show that we love God but are never really good enough.

No matter how many times we replay the story, we human beings are never really good enough, we always fall short. And we always get kicked out of the garden. We are separated from God, from the divine, from love, and as Hafiz wrote in our opening words, this is the hardest work in this world. It is excruciatingly painful because we humans are hardwired for connection – connection with one another, with the divine, with love. Connection, Brené Brown says, is why we are here – it gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering. Our shame keeps us disconnected.

But what if we turn that story around. What if the ancestors got it wrong? Theologian Matthew Fox denies the doctrine of original sin, and instead writes of original blessing. He says that we are born into love. Instead of focusing on being cast out from paradise, he looks at the preceding verses. First, God created heaven and earth. And it was good. And then God created day and night. And that was good too! And then God created the sky, and the earth, and the waters, and the plants, and the animals, and the people. And after each thing God created, God declared it good.

Fox writes, “We can say blessing preceded creation, too, for blessing was its purpose. Thus there is no doubt that original blessing is the basis of all trust and of all faith. Original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is. As Rabbi Heschel puts it, ‘Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.’”

Fox’s theology resonates with historical Universalist theology, which focused on a benevolent God who would offer universal salvation to all – that no sin, original or not, was too great to separate us from the divine.

Original sin tells us we are dirty, shameful creatures, unfit to be in the presence of the divine. Original blessing tells us that we are good, we are lovable and we are enough. Or, as Julian of Norwich would say, that all will be well.

So what does it look like to incarnate, embody, a belief in original blessing rather than original sin?Brené Brown says the opposite of shame is being wholehearted. “Wholehearted living,” she writes, “is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown writes that because “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

So how do we improve our level of self-acceptance? Brown outlines 10 guideposts in her book. One she mentions frequently is through practicing vulnerability. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another, we strengthen our connection to our own worthiness and to each other. Brown says “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”  The path to wholeheartedness.

And so I’m going to ask you to be vulnerable with me, and with one another for a moment. I would like to pass around a blessing. I’ll start each seating section off, and then one at a time you will pass the blessing around, much like we would play the game of telephone, until each of us has blessed one another. The person giving the blessing will turn to the receiver, and the giver will say “You are enough.” The receiver will then answer “I am enough.” And together you will say “Blessed be.” Then the receiver turns to their neighbor and becomes the giver, passing the blessing along.

Shame tells us that we are not enough: not good enough, not perfect enough, not thin enough, not powerful enough, not successful enough, not smart enough, not certain enough, not safe enough, not extraordinary enough. But shame’s origins are in a faulty theology of original sin passed down from the generations.

Instead of shame, let us embrace a Universalist theology that tells us we are lovable, we are worthy, we are enough. A theology of original blessing. Let us remind ourselves of this by joining together in litany of wholeheartedness. After each phrase I read, you respond “We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.”

Because there have been times when shame has crushed our ability to be wholehearted…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

Because we have not always had the courage to be imperfect…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

Because we have struggled to have compassion for ourselves or others…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

Because we have been afraid of our own vulnerability…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

Because we are sometimes too scared to live authentically…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

Because we want to be whole-hearted people, confident in our worthiness and our belonging…
We let go of who we ought to be and embrace who we are.

May it be so. Blessed be.

even optimists get the blues.

28 Aug
Ode to the Holy Spirit, by Dawn Wicklow

Ode to the Holy Spirit, by Dawn Wicklow

I saw it from across the room and knew immediately it was for me. I am not into art, but this painting captivated me – the colors, the lines, the way it caught the light. I knew it would fit beautifully on the mantle in my living room (and really class the place up, too), and so bought it and prepared accordingly.

When it arrived in the mail today, almost shredded, I felt a deep sense of loss – the loss of a beautiful, original piece of art that had touched me so deeply, combined with the loss of a plan for brightening my living room.

It has been a few weeks of compounding losses for me, and this was the final straw. I broke down in tears. Tears for the loss of the painting. Tears for my spouse, whose uncle just died. Tears for my mother, who lost her uncle on the same day as my spouse. Tears for the loss that came just as I was posting my blog about ultimate optimism – one that has caused a disruption in my family’s plans for the future. Tears for the loss of colleagues – so many have died in the past few weeks – and tears for my colleagues who step up to midwife the grief of others even as they grieve themselves. And too, tears for how much pain and suffering there is in our society right now.

Because this is how grief works: one strand gets connected to another, and another. Where I might be able to handle one strand or even two without much disruption in my day-to-day life, when it becomes a heavy net of strands woven together, even an ultimate optimist can collapse under the weight and retire to bed for recuperation. Which is what I did.

Is this hypocrisy? No, not at all. Being an ultimate optimist does not make one immune to sorrow. We still struggle with it, just like everyone else. We get sad. We cry. We mourn. What we don’t do, usually, is get stuck there permanently.

I am in bed today, and maybe even tomorrow. But I know that as I process the grief, these cracks in my broken heart will heal. And in my healing, I will be made more loving, more vulnerable, and perhaps even more human. As Leonard Cohen writes in his poem “Anthem”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Blessed be.

an ultimate optimism.

19 Aug

As I was walking with a friend, he started talking about how he didn’t understand optimists at all. “How can optimists get out of bed when, day after day, they can see how things are falling apart around us? How can they see their good ideas and hopes fail again and again and not succumb to despair?”

He was surprised when I shared that I am an optimist. “You seem too realistic and pragmatic to be an optimist!” Thanks, I guess.

But I continued: My optimism isn’t focused on the short-term but on the long term. As a whole, I feel like I am improving as a person, that my family is improving as a unit, that my community is becoming more compassionate and that humanity is becoming smarter, stronger, more resilient, more authentic, more loving, more just, and so-on. Slowly, perhaps, but we are on our way to something better.

And, I said, as we are on our way to something better, we will fail – that is a given. But that doesn’t mean that the entire endeavor is a failure. Indeed, often times the best stuff comes out of what, at first, appears to be a failure.

I am inspired by the wisdom tale (either Zen or Taoist, I am not sure which) of the farmer. In this story, a farmer’s horse runs away, which seems like bad luck. Maybe, the farmer says. But then the horse returns and brings back another horse (or two) with it, which seems like good luck. Maybe, the farmer says. But then the wild horse injures the farmer’s son (bad luck, maybe) which causes him to miss the draft (good luck, maybe)…you get the picture.

Theologian James Luther Adams once wrote that “liberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”  My optimism is grounded in my liberal faith.  It is not dependent on everything working out the way I think it should in the present moment. Instead, it tells me that we cannot know in the short term whether something is good luck or bad luck, but in the long run things will, somehow, eventually, work out for the good.

As Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker wrote in 1853:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

If one’s optimism is dependent on things working out in the short term, despair can (and does) easily set in. However, if one has an attitude of a more ultimate optimism, one need only look at the larger picture for affirmation.

Was it good luck that I developed this ultimate optimism?  Was it bad luck?  Maybe. It’s hard to say. But I’ll take it.

a week to fill one’s spirit.

25 Jul

Where can Unitarian Universalists of all ages go on a nature hike in the morning, do a chocolate tasting in the afternoon, attend worship which contains both an inspiring message and amazing music in the evening, and then go kick up your heels in what feels like a loving night-club environment? And then either mix it up or do it all again the next day? The answer is SUUSI, the Southern UU Summer Institute, held this year on the campus of Virginia Tech.

I have to say, I am sold. This was my first UU summer institute (or summer camp), and I loved it.  In fact, the whole family is sold – and getting an extrovert (me), an introvert (spouse), and 2 kids (14 and 11) to agree on anything is pretty much a miracle.

SUUSI Drop-in Choir at Wednesday Evening Worship

SUUSI Drop-in Choir at Wednesday Evening Worship

Never having been to anything like this before, I was invited to provide worship one time during the week. My family and I took that as an opportunity to check it out and see if all the great things we had heard about SUUSI are true (they are!). So we loaded up the car and hit the road. Actually, one of us hit the road heading east from home, two of us hit the road heading west from a visit with Grandma and Grandpa, and I hit the airport to fly there after a pretty intense and wonderful week as the chaplain at MidWest Leadership School. We really had to work to get there – and it was totally worth it.

In truth, I wasn’t much for the workshops and adventures – my spouse and I signed up for a morning workshop, and it was wonderful. But other than that, I was mostly about rest. Long summer walks, meals that I didn’t have to prepare (or even think about!), and checking in with the kids a few times a day to see how they were doing – the teenager was in the teen dorm and tasted independence in a new way, and the tween was with the “middlers” who had fun, scheduled activities for much of the day. Activities, mind you, that I did not have to plan!

Multigenerational Community Time at SUUSI

Multigenerational Community Time at SUUSI

Early in the week, the evenings saw us playing board and card games with old and new friends, but after a few nights in, we decided to check out the very robust night-life.  My spouse and I went to a concert from a fabulous musician and then kicked off our shoes (literally!) at not one, but TWO different dance halls. I haven’t danced like that since my twenties!

The next night I wept during the Transitions worship service as I watched teens make the leap (literally) into the waiting arms of a young adult ready to welcome them into their new status as a YA, and then more music, and more dancing.

When we arrived on Sunday, people told us that this one week filled their spirits for the year. Frankly, I was skeptical. But not anymore. Now I am a believer. SUUSI’s mission, which they incarnate beautifully, is:

to provide a one week experience evoking the best within us, in concert with Unitarian Universalist principles. SUUSI offers the opportunity to share an intergenerational environment of love, personal freedom, ethics, and joy in an intentional, nonjudgmental community.

The dates for next year’s SUUSI have been announced, and a new location found. It will be even closer to home than VA Tech. But people come from all over, so don’t let the location be a deterrent. I’ve already put it on our family calendar. If this sounds appealing to you, I suggest you do as well.  I hope to see you there!

clash of the worldviews, or, sources of miscommunication.

24 Jul

It happened again recently.  I was at a gathering of Unitarian Universalists and the person leading worship used some God language, without explanation or qualifications.  As is usually the case, some people loved it, some people got angry, and some people didn’t know what all the fuss was about.  As I watched the interaction, I saw a repeat of a situation that seems to becoming more and more prevalent in our UU congregations: a miscommunication that stems from a clash of worldviews.

Here is what it looks like when leading worship:BWI-WorldviewCultureCircles

When Modern Pat uses “God” in worship, it is rare, and usually something that Modern Pat is against.  Modern Pat sees God in a very specific way: the old man in the clouds, pointing His finger at human beings. However, Modern Pat will use all sorts of euphemisms instead of “God”: ground of our being, the Ultimate, etc.

When Postmodern Chris uses “God” in worship, it is with an important invitation:  Postmodern Chris will always invite the listener to interpret “God” in whatever way works for them.  Postmodern Chris might then refer to some of the euphemisms that Modern Pat uses.

When Neomodern Riley refers to God in worship, there are no quotes, and there are no conditions or qualifiers. There may or may not be any euphemisms, because Neomodern Riley understands that all these words point to the same unknowable place.  Neomodern Riley assumes that the listener will interpret God in whatever way works for them, that the listener does not need to be told to make such a translation.

The trouble arises when Neomodern Riley is trying to communicate with Modern Pat, because Modern Pat does not feel included, and often feels explicitly excluded, and Neomodern Riley is not sure why.  There is a clash of worldviews.

So what does this mean for our relationships and interactions with one another within our faith tradition?

Modernists, you are beloved members of our faith community who are not intentionally being excluded. I invite you, the next time you hear words you don’t agree with in your UU congregation, ask yourself if you and the speaker are coming from similar, or different, worldviews.

Neomodernists, you are also beloved members of our faith community. I invite you to remember that some of us have not caught up with your radical inclusion – it might be helpful to add some euphamisms or qualifiers occasionally.

Postmodernists, you are also beloved members of the our faith community, and you have the advantage of being able to understand and bridge the other two worldviews. Rock on!


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