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

7 Nov

My good-bye sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on October 23, 2016.

As we all know, today is a very special day. Today, we celebrate the Cubs making it into the World Series.

Just kidding. Unless you are a Cubs Fan.

No, today is special because it is the last time I will stand before you as your minister. At the end of today, I will turn in my keys, say my final goodbyes, and take a week off before I start my work for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


The wayside pulpit at First Unitarian Church on the night of a devastating fire in December 1985.

Last sermon for you. Oh my goodness. There are so, so many things I want to say. When I write a sermon, I usually throw out a rough draft or maybe two, but this sermon has had at least 5 different versions. At one point, I thought I’d do a narrative: tell my story, tell your story, tell the story of our time together, and then talk about your future and what hopes I have for you. Another version had me listing all your ministers – I was going to ask you to raise your hand or stand up for each minister you remembered. I wanted to demonstrate that though my ministry with you is transient, the ministry continues. This is why ministers generally cut off contact with congregants when they leave – to make room for the next minister to fill the role.

I even made a spreadsheet with all your ministers – settled and interim (I am number 28!) – and I included not just their start and end dates, but how old they were when they started. It was pretty neat to discover that in terms of length of ministry and age when I started, I’m actually a pretty average minister for you! But as fascinating as spreadsheets and data mining are to me, it is not a suitable topic for a last sermon. And, truly, this last sermon – it’s not about me. It’s about you.

I want you to walk away from today uplifted, hopeful, and grateful for our time together. I want you to walk away emboldened and energized to live your mission. No, I won’t be with you, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about how First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY embodies our saving faith in this neighborhood and beyond. I want to remind you that you are a beacon!

So many of you have told me, these last few weeks, how this church has saved you – not in some other life, but in this life, here and now. In a world that tries to convince people otherwise, you shared with me how healing it is to be told, each week, that you are lovable and that you are loved.

So many people are looking for a place where they are accepted, no matter their educational background, their theology or lack thereof. People are looking for a place where their gender identity and sexual orientation are not only accepted but celebrated. People are looking for a place where their quirks are tolerated, where it’s okay if they’ve served time, where their family structure is supported, where they will be told that black lives matter, and where they can get into and out of and around the building independently whether on wheels or on legs.

There is so, so much pain in this world. So much “othering” of anyone who does not fit society’s arbitrary standards. So many people are looking for ways through the confusion, looking for the transformational power of love that First Unitarian Church offers. And then, once you experience it and begin to heal, it is natural to want to give back. To serve this congregation that helped to save you.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist – that you know it is your responsibility to love and help others once you have experienced that love and acceptance yourself. Mark Morrison Reed wisely wrote that it is in being loved that we learn to love. We cannot, must not, hide our light under a bushel – it is not only irresponsible, but it is wrong. Wrong to keep this saving faith to ourselves.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to put ourselves out there. To help bind up the broken, the love the hell out the world and to love each other out of hell.

How will First Unitarian continue to do this? How will you continue to embody and incarnate your mission, even in these few months before the interim minister arrives?

When I look back, I see that we have done great things together in the last 7.5 years. We’ve worked on what it means to welcome people – the welcoming statement that’s on every order of service and the website is a living document that is constantly being added to, expanded. We joined CLOUT in an effort to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those too often silenced. We made our bathrooms accessible to all genders. We gave Religious Exploration its own hour and welcomed children into worship. We have used this building as outreach to the community: offering affordable space to Central Louisville Community Ministries, FORward radio, and two other worshiping congregations! We have strived for excellence in worship and in all we do. We have argued, debated, and even changed positions when we thought we were entrenched.

We have done amazing ministry together.

Now you are at an intersection – my ministry with you has reached its end. We each will go our separate ways.

Which way will go you?

Will you turn inward? Let any anger or frustration, or even fear, or sorrow about my departure cause you to pull back into yourself? Will you hide your light so that only those already here will see it?

Or, will you use this time to flourish? Will you continue to be a beacon of liberal religion here in Kentuckiana? Continue to share our saving faith with those who need it? This, this is my hope for you.

But how do you do that between now and when your next minister arrives? I’ve told the Board and leadership that the #1 thing that I think you need to, in order to continue to be the beacon you ought to be, and indeed, even to help you figure out who to call as your next minister, the #1 thing you need is a plan. A strategic plan.

You need goals. Priorities and objectives that you can measure against – priorities that can drive your budgeting choices – whether that budgeting is financial, or even when you are budgeting how much volunteer or staff energy you have. Because you can’d do and be everything.

One thing I do not recommend you put in that plan is to grow your membership. For too many years, Unitarian Universalist congregations were told that they were only successful if they were growing. What we know now is that the vast majority of congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, are dying. Growth in membership, for the sake of growth in membership, is an unrealistic target. And then it feels like a failure when it doesn’t happen.

But there are other important ways you can grow: you can grow in how you incarnate, embody, your mission and vision. You can grow in spiritual depth. You can grow in your organizational capacity.

The reality is that your options are not limitless. They are bounded by your financial capacity and the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. But you are are so rich both in terms of finances and in terms of volunteer and staff energy, you certainly have many, many options!!

Yes, you are financially very well off. I’m taking a Finance Management for Nonprofits graduate class right now – we are learning about debt ratio and assets. Let me tell you: no one should ever claim that there is “not enough” here – because there is abundance! You have no debt, you are generous pledgers, you have an amazing endowment and you are wrapping up a wildly successful capital campaign.

And yes, you are very well off in terms of volunteer and staff energy. You are a congregation that knows how to support your minister, that strives to be fair in how you pay your staff. You are a congregation that says “yes” to ideas that members come up with. You are a congregation that has learned how to rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD. You have abundance, in finances and in the amount of talent, skills and energy people have to get the job done.

What you don’t have, yet, is a plan against which to measure your decisions. You are reaching out in every direction – a mile wide and an inch deep. This applies to how you do your finances, how you do your social justice work, and it applies to pretty much everything. This is the shadow side of being a “yes!” congregation without a plan: everything gets stretched too thin and it feels like there is not enough. But if you focus, if you know where you want to go and can set goals and objectives, then you will know how to prioritize your resources and how to better utilize and manage them. There is abundance here. It just needs to be be harnessed properly, and pointed in the right direction.

Of course, this means change. It means potentially sunsetting programs that don’t energize people, programs that don’t measure well against your plan or your mission. It means change, and change means loss. But it also means growth and possibility. A new day.

I want you to shine. I want you to pick a direction and point your light that way, and start moving, confidently and with conviction.

I will be watching. And rooting for you. And talking you up to my colleagues. You are an essential part of my ministry – your sap runs through my veins. You taught me, gave me confidence in myself as a minister, helped me grow my gifts and talents. You allowed me to take risks, and to fail, and to know that that is okay. James Keller pointed out that “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I burn brightly because you lit my flame. And so I take you with me wherever I go.

But I am not the bright light of this church. You all are. You own the ministry. You light the beacon and keep it burning. If you think I hung the moon, it is only because you built a ladder for me to reach it. This is my final task for you: seek to embody your mission, relentlessly, and First Unitarian Church will continue to shine, as it has for nearly 200 years. I love you. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

The Opposite of Compassion
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 19, 2016


Back in April, when we sat around the table at our Worship Planning meeting for this month’s services, there was a lot we knew, and a lot we didn’t know. We knew the theme for the month was compassion. We knew we wanted to integrate that theme into the service each week: we had Linette kick off the month by connecting our flower communion to the Flower Sutra in Buddhism, which links compassion and mindfulness. Last week, we had a sort of primer on compassion that got us thinking and reflecting about it in our own lives. For today, we planned on presenting a service on the opposite of compassion. And then we decided to round out June next week by having the chance to practice embodying compassion for youth across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

We had no idea that there would be an immediate example of the opposite of compassion that I could utilize today. And no idea how urgently our service next week for young people would be needed.

947a732ac5e8f78f057f5328d70b50baacb1f551But now we know. Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, a male, American-born citizen – raised in our country, claiming allegiance to ISIS, choose a holy time of day, in the holy month of Ramadan, to go to gay bar that was celebrating Latinx night – a gay bar which the shooter had frequented many times and at which he was known. He went in with an assault weapon and pistol – and he proceeded to kill 49 innocent people and injure more than 50 others before he was finally brought down and killed by police.

And so we add another chapter to our country’s stories of sanctuary being defiled by gun violence: the sanctuary that the GLBT community finds in these few, rare spaces, that are theirs, where they can dance, hold, and enjoy their loved ones without fear of reprisal.

The cynical side of me supposes that was to be expected. There really is no safe place – senseless violence occurs anywhere these day – schools, churches, movie theaters; and now gay bars. What’s next? Hospitals? Plays? Concerts? Sporting events? Probably.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave another anti-gun-violence speech. Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, pointed out that Obama has hosted 12 state dinners but has had to give 16 mass shooting addresses during his tenure.

Meanwhile, after sending thoughts and prayers to Orlando, the GOP House Chair blocked an LGBT protections bill. And even after a filibuster, there’s still no deal for either gun control proposal on the table right now – one that keeps people who are on terror watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that requires background checks for sales at gun shows and online.

Meanwhile, much of the media ignores that the victims were mostly people of color. This tragedy is a poster-child for intersectionality, a concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like -isms & -phobias are interconnected and not magically separate issues. The reality is that queer people of color still have the highest fatality rates for transgender murder, HIV/AIDS, and youth homelessness. They are often rejected by both communities.

The blaming has been intense, if not surprising. Blame guns, religion, sexual orientation. But there are some things we don’t want to look at – like the fact that the shooter was raised in this country. He was one of ours, a byproduct of our culture, our educational systems. The reality is that it’s very difficult, and complicated, to have conversations that look at all the intersecting factors in this tragedy. But as Chris Hedges points out, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Have we reached the point where our civilization is condemned to die? My colleague, The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, summed it up beautifully on her facebook page: “Let’s be clear: In our current national climate, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, and Transphobia are at a loud, fever pitch. One of our presidential candidates explicitly spouts all of them and STILL BECAME A MAJOR PARTY NOMINEE.”

And not only has hatred personified become a major party nominee, but there are tens of millions of people in this country willing to vote for him. Tens of millions of people to whom his message of hate appeals.

Mr. Rogers, in the moment for all ages, said that in scary times, to look for the helpers. There we will find hope, and comfort.

And I love Mr. Rogers – I really do. I was shaped by his theology as a young child and continue to be inspired by him today.

But looking for the helpers is not cutting it for me right now. I don’t think it is enough for any of us. Fred, I want to ask him, that is great, but what about after the urgency of a crisis? Then what? Where do we find hope in the ongoing struggle? And, more importantly, how can we fight this rising tide of hate, of dehumanization, of oppression?

Now, here is the point where you might expect me to get all ministerly and say that we need to be more compassionate, that we are called to love even our enemies. Yadda yadda yadda. But frankly, right now, that type of response feels trite. Insufficient. Unrealistic.

The reality is that there is no one single answer, no one theological exercise, no one piece of legislation, no one solution that will bring all this pain and suffering towards healing. As Rev. Gordon points out, “We cannot, cannot, cannot decry one [of these forms of oppression] without actively and passionately resisting all of them. They are inextricably linked and rooted in a basic failure to recognize both our common humanity and the beauty of our unique differences.”

But for many of us right now, the idea of passionately resisting all of them, heck maybe even passionately resisting one of them – well, it makes us want to crawl into a cave. But there is something we can do that is not as overwhelming as compassion or passionately resisting, and not as insufficient as crawling into a cave. And that is this: we must not allow ourselves succumb to the hate and dehumanization of those who brought us to this point.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I know many of you know this quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We often focus on the last part – that we need love to drive out hate. But if we are not in a place of love, then, perhaps we can be in a place of not hating.

I am not talking about hate in the way I would say, I hate beets, or I hate predictable movies. No, I am talking about hate that dehumanizes. Hate that is born of judgmentalism. Judgmentalism that is, at its root, the opposite of compassion.

Judgmentalism tells me that I am better than someone else. That I am more worthy. It leads to a belief that my rights are more important than your rights.

Terry D. Cooper, in his fabulous book “Making Judgments without being Judgmental” lists a number of characteristics of judgmentalism.

When we are judgmental, he says, we are not concerned for others. We presume to know people’s motives without reasonable evidence rather than trusting someone else’s motives unless we have reason to do otherwise.

When we are judgmental, we cling tenaciously to moral and religious concepts with disrespect and intolerance for those who differ, rather than being respectful and tolerant of differences.

When we are judgmental, we denounce the personhood, the humanity, rather than the behavior of those to adhere to erroneous ideas or destructive behavior. We refuse to recognize problems or limitations with our own viewpoint and we insist on absolute certainty rather than having humility.

It is judgmentalism, in part, that leads fundamentalist Christians to focus on the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that peripherally deal with homosexuality rather than focusing on Jesus’s call to love one another, and to judge not, lest ye be judged.

It is judgmentalism in the form of white supremacy that allows Trump to say that Mexicans are rapists, and that we are going to build a wall to keep them out.

And it would be judgmentalism to blame all Muslims, or all gun owners, for what happened in Orlando.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe my morals are superior to those of the shooter. And I absolutely believe that our liberal religious values are superior to those who preach or teach hate.

But while we can condemn behavior, if we are to condemn people, to see them as less than, or unworthy as human beings, then we are likely to fall prey to the same dehumanizing behavior that we find so troublesome. Cooper points out that “Reactivity begets reactivity. It’s hard to keep our balance when we’ve been clobbered by [someone else’s] judgmentalism.” And so, rather than calling for compassion or love, I ask that we combat the judgmentalism in ourselves that might leads us to hate. The judgmentalism that is the opposite of compassion.

Perhaps, if we are able to not succumb to judgmentalism and hate we might find a way forward that works for us all. And, one day, we might better embody the compassion of the Samaritan, who helped out a broken man on the road, simply because another human being was in pain. For there is a twist in this ancient story – one that not many people realize. Jews and Samaritans – they did not get along at ALL. For generation upon generation, over 500 years, the two cultures were at odds. And so it was absolutely relevant that Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Jew who asked who our neighbors were, told a story in which other Jews passed the injured man by, but it was a Samaritan, a despised Samaritan who not only stopped to help, but paid for the injured man’s care out of his own pocket.

If we cannot be compassionate, then at least may we not succumb to hate, to judgmentalism. For perhaps, as we heal, as we seek comfort, we might eventually get to that place of compassion after all. As Rev. Gordon writes “It is each of our job to listen to the experience AND the pain of others, and to stay open to the pain that we ourselves feel- not to harden our hearts in fear or defensiveness. It is only then that we can collectively turn our pain into resistance, solidarity, compassion, and a more just community.”

I give the final word this morning to Greg Zanis, who built 49 wooden crosses then drove 1,200 miles from Illinois to Florida to place them outside the Orlando Health Medical Center. “My message today is love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge ‘em.” May it be so. May we make it so.

the transient and permanent in UU ministry.

14 Jun

Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long
June 4, 2016

You can watch the entire ordination below. Sermon starts at 31:00.

Imagine the scene, 175 years ago, at the Hawes’ Place Church in South Boston. May 19, 1841, was, like tonight. the night of an ordination. The ordinand was Mr. Charles C. Shackford, a mere 26 years old. He would go on to serve the Lynn church for 19 years. The preacher that evening was Rev. Theodore Parker.

Delivering the sermon at an ordination is an honor in our tradition. Then, and today, the sermons are generally not particular to the ordinand but instead address either our larger Unitarian Universalist faith tradition or the institution of our professional ministry. Ordination sermons are a time to stand up on the balcony and survey the view – to look at trends, or challenges, that we are facing, and to offer our observations.

175 years ago, Unitarians were facing a challenge – the theological challenge of Transcendentalism. Parker had heard Emerson give his Divinity School Address three years earlier and had been powerfully moved by it. In that address, Emerson had defined many of the tenets of Transcendentalism, comparing it to a more traditional Unitarian theology. The Divinity School address had begun a major controversy within Unitarianism, a fire to which Parker’s sermon added fuel.

The title of Parker’s sermon was “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” His main idea was that, in Christianity, there are some things that are permanent, enduring through the ages – such as what Jesus taught: Love your neighbor and the meek shall inherit the world. And there are some things that are transient, changing over the passage of time – such as how particular Biblical passages are applied, an even, Parker said, the authority of the Bible! Hearing his sermon, some declared, “If that is Unitarianism, I am not a Unitarian!” Sean Dennison writes that “Parker’s main point at this particular ordination was that the Christians of the day were missing the point. They had confused what was transient, changeable, and impermanent for what was enduring in Christianity. He challenged them to look at their habits, their rituals, their practices and their doctrines and let go of much that was more about fear than about the core message of their faith.”

So it is with some trepidation that I take my title today from that historic ordination sermon Parker gave 175 years ago. I am not Theodore Parker. I am older than he was when he gave his address. And a woman. And I doubt history will take notice of me the way it did this man who could turn a phrase – the moral arc of the universe and “government of all, by all, for all” are both his.

And at the same time, I believe we are at a turning point not unlike the turning point that Parker found himself in low those years ago. I believe we are at a time when the old ways are rolling away, and the new ways that are coming in are scary, unknown, overwhelming, and challenging to how things have been done in our lifetimes.

But while the crisis in Parker’s day was a theological one, the one today is a crisis around the sustainability of religious life. Church attendance is at its lowest rate in the history of our country. More and more people understand themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Not only are there fewer people in the pews on Sunday morning, but many of those who are there have less time to volunteer to help make the church function. The volunteer bench is not as deep as it used to be as retirees are often finding part-time jobs to help make ends meet, and many families with two parents find that both are needing to work. This might all be fine if people were able to give more financially, but church giving is not increasing at pace with other charitable giving – certainly not at the rate needed to fund positions that used to be filled by volunteers. So we are at a critical juncture within our religious institutions: how do we adapt to this changing religious landscape? I’ve written about some ways congregations might adapt – tonight I’d like to explore what this might mean for our professional ministry.

For there’s no doubt about it: our ministry is changing. I entered seminary in 1997. The ministry that I do now is not at all what I expected going in less than 20 years ago. Speaking with colleagues with more experience than I, I know that I am not alone. One colleague boldly told me that ministry used to be much simpler – more scholarly and more pastoral, not like today with all the distractions.

What might the future hold for the beloved vocation of parish ministry? During the recent summit on The Economic Sustainability of Unitarian Universalist Ministries, many religious professionals (parish ministers, community ministers, directors of religious education) shared that they live paycheck to paycheck, as hours are cut, student loan and seminary debt increases, and salaries don’t keep pace. There is much debate within our professional associations about bi-vocational ministry – professional ministers who have other jobs outside of ministry. In truth, because we are not yet certain how congregations will adapt to the changing religious landscape, it is hard to predict what professional parish ministry will look like 50 years from now. Things are changing. Quickly.

Reverend Khoren Arisian addressed this onslaught of change in his 1998 Berry Street Lecture, which had the subtitle “The Transient and Permanent In Life And Ministry.” Arisian shared that, “As time goes by in this marvelous, maddening world, things get more and more complicated, events move faster and faster, so that we need more than ever to have a reliable point of view, an existential epistemological compass, as it were, by which to discriminate one thing from another.”

In this time of great change in our religious landscape, when events move faster and faster, I am inspired to take a page from Parker and look at what is transient, and what is permanent, in our Unitarian Universalist ministry, for this can provide us with the “existential epistemelogical compass” Arisian mentions. I don’t have the luxury of an hour long lecture or 45 minute sermon, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view – I hear those sighs of relief!), so there is much I don’t have time to address. My hope is that the five points that I touch on here become fodder for further thought and exploration – something (perhaps) to be expanded upon, particularly for those of us engaged in, or contemplating, the professional ministry.

And so: the transient.

Example number one, appropriately enough – the sermon, or, more specifically, how we deliver our message. If it is true that today’s people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, I can only imagine what it would be like to magically transport Parker through time to be here today – his hour long sermon, bereft of stories and full of academic theology – would undoubtedly find many minds wandering. When I entered seminary, the ideal was a three point sermon, 20ish minutes, logically and coherently arranged. Today, sermons are shorter, and many experts in homiletics recommend one point. One. Ideally, that one point is made through the use of stories. By todays standards, this sermon this evening is dry, long, and uninspiring. Sorry, folks!

There is nothing wrong with this shorter, story-telling style of sermon – the stories keep the listener engaged, and with just one point it is easier to be clear, and go deep. Sermon style falls into the transient category. But I would also propose that the sermon itself may, as well. As we begin to gear our message to a wider audience, with more educational diversity and neurological diversity and generational diversity, we may find that other ways to share our message become more useful and have greater impact. Time will tell.

What hasn’t changed – what is permanent – is how we arrive at the content of our message. In the Divinity School Address that so inspired Parker, Emerson said that it is the role of the preacher to deal out “life passed through the fire of thought.” Whether it is three points, or one, full of stories or full of academic quotes, the role of the minister is to take our experiences – our educational experiences, our life experiences, the catalog of our lives and of the world around us, and to examine them deeply – to take the personal and use it as a lens with which to reflect on the universal. Whether we share that message through a sermon, or a blog posting, a facebook post, or a tweet (hashtag “jordinnation”), a snapchat story or a self-published novella – the medium of the message transient, but passing life through the fire of thought is permanent.

This leads to the next area of the transient: the tools we use. Once upon a time, it was letters and personal visits via horseback. Then it was phone calls and car-rides to the hospital. Today, it is email and facebook. The amount of email needing to be read is never-ending. Facebook presents us with boundless opportunities for positive connections with colleagues and with congregants. The shadow side is that digital connection sometimes has replaced, not enhanced, in-person connection. I vividly remember the time facebook was the method from which I learned that a congregant had died. But facebook is choosy about what it shows. This can cause problems when congregants believe that the minister has seen and been made aware of something that we are clueless about. The relationship between a minister and a congregant can end up broken when a congregant relies on social media to inform the minister of important events in their lives. And the relationship, the connection between the office of ministry and the people we serve while in that office, is something that is permanent.

Those whom we serve want the minister to know them, to see them, to walk with them in times of crisis and sit with them in times of need. With multiple generations in a congregation, this means some will want us to call them, some will prefer email, some prefer facebook or texting, others, well, you’ll have to ask them. The tools of relationship are transient, but the need congregants have for a relationship with their minister is permanent.

Our connections with people both within and outside the congregations we serve, combined with our reflections on our lives and relationships, will lead us to an awareness of the vast injustice present in our world. Which brings us to a third example of the transient and the permanent in our ministry. The specific nature of an injustice we see may be transient since even as we make advances in one area, another arises – racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-phobia, ablism. Our capacity as human beings to turn someone into “other” seems to have no end. And so, while a particular type of oppression might be transient, oppression itself is permanent, and so too is our responsibility as ministers to call out oppression when we see it. We may say that we work to create God’s kingdom here on earth, or say that our role is to “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.” We may say that we are putting our hands upon the moral arc of the universe and bending it towards justice or that it is our job to love the hell out of the world. How we phrase it changes with the generations, just as the form of oppression changes. What is permanent is our role, as liberal ministers, to hold and proclaim the vision of a world made fair and all her people cared for – to call humanity to its best self.

Prophetic voice, staying in relationship, sharing our message- it can all get overwhelming. Rev. Sharon Ditmar, preaching at my installation at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, shared something that has stuck with me and that I have held onto for years. Ministry, she said, is a marathon, not a sprint. She was talking about how it is necessary to pace ourselves, to understand that we can’t run mile after mile at a sprinter pace or we will burn ourselves out. And she is so right! Trying to juggle church life, family life, personal life – it can be exhausting. But this is also misleading, because unlike a marathon, there is no line that we cross where we suddenly say to ourselves “We have ARRIVED!” Or at least, I haven’t found one.

Instead, ministry is like trying to drink from a firehose – there are hundreds of little things that constantly need to get done, so that as ministers we can try to guzzle it all, or to take little sips. And sometimes we need to pull away from it entirely, lest we drown. Jordinn, I promise, when you miss a Board or Committee meeting, or neglect to answer every email within 72 hours, the church won’t fall apart. This is the message I tell myself every year, especially this time of year when my energy is low after Easter, the pledge drive, the annual meeting, and a year’s worth of guzzling from the firehose.

And so these trappings of ministry, these things, events, activities – they are a fourth aspect of the transient in ministry that distracts us from the permanent, which in this case is that ministry calls us to be our whole selves. To be authentic human beings. And for me to know, at my core, that I am enough. For you to know that you are enough. That ministry is not something we do, it is something we are. Ministry, this call to be in the world, to speak truth in love, to meet people where they are, to challenge the world to be better, to walk with those in need, and to model all this for those we serve – this is the permanent, and my imperfect, insecure, constantly falling short self is exactly enough to live this ministry into life. And so is yours.

I am enough. You are enough. But it is not about me, and it is not about you. In fact, the reality is that as individual ministers, WE are what is transient. This is the fifth and final observation of the transient and permanent in ministry. Us. We live our lives, we do the best we can, we hope to make a difference- and I think that we usually do. But our ministries end, and someone comes behind us to take our place. As Mark Morrison Reed observed in his Berry Street Lecture from 16 years ago, we must die so that the ministry will live. It is our duty to fill the jar and leave it for the next traveler. And this is as it should be! This is what it means to be part of a living tradition that grows and changes with each generation. What is permanent, what is lasting, is this tradition that we are a part of. We have beloveds who came before us, paved the way and broke through barriers and ceilings; beloveds who will come after us and drink from the wells we tend; and beloveds who are on this journey with us, who can encourage us when our energies flag, who can call US to be our best selves. One generation passes over into another and our ministries will end. But the ministry continues.

Indeed, from time immemorial there have been shamans, priests, wise-women, and elders who have been the voice of the divine, the keepers of wisdom, the face of God for those in need interpreting the mysteries of the universe and what it means to be human. Those in this role have buried the dead, welcomed the newly born, told the stories, kept the rituals, communicated with the divine, and shown the people where to go. The specific manifestation looks different in each cultural incarnation, each human epoch, but the need for such religious leadership itself remains constant. People will always needed ministers, in some capacity.

The transient changes, with time and generations. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad – just that it’s shifting sands upon which to build a ministry. It often demands our attention, urgently. It can distract us and we can get lost in it’s cacophony: read this email! Write a blog entry! More stories in your sermon! Go to more community meetings!

As ministers, we sometimes get caught up in what is transient and lose sight of what is permanent. And so it behooves us to look at our habits, practices and the stories we tell ourselves about ministry – and let go of that which demands our attention so that we might dig deeper and remember what is enduring about ministry.

When we pause and listen, we can discern that which is permanent, hear it whispering to us, sustaining us. It tells us that we will be neither the pinnacle nor the nadir in this ageless institution, but that we are enough just the same. It tells us that our vocation is about relationship, paying attention, and speaking the truth as we know it. We are called to watch where we are going. Lean in toward love. And when in doubt, tell our truth. May that which is permanent sustain us, and may it set us free. Blessed be.

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!

















to love, serve and honor one another.

3 Mar

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016

Note: This sermon was inspired by a song by Jason Shelton, which I simply could not get out of my head one week. The link to a youtube video teaching the song is at the bottom of the post.


Once upon a time, there were two brothers. We will call them Cain and Abel. Abel, the younger brother, was a shepherd. Cain, the older brother, was a farmer. And they worshipped a deity who was anything but a vegetarian. So their God loved the sheep sacrifices that Abel brought, but was not too fond of the veggies Cain provided. In this story, God sounds a little like a fussy toddler to me, but that is besides the point. I am sure there were some good reasons back in the day that have gotten lost over the ages.

What is the point is that Cain was jealous. His younger brother got all this love and attention from God for his lousy animal sacrifice, while Cain was reprimanded for providing the fruits of his harvest. But rather than take his anger to God, because this God was like an all-powerful toddler after all, Cain took his anger out on Abel, and he killed him. Which was really extreme, and a terrible decision, but that is what he did.

Well, God came looking for his favorite Abel. And asked Cain “Where is your brother?” And Cain got all defensive and he said “I don’t know. Am I my brothers’ keeper?”

Now, God could tell by Cain’s attitude that something bad had happened, and so he cried out “What have you done?” and then God proceeded to curse Cain so that his fields would never yield again.

Ahh, the story of Cain and Abel. The first brothers in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first murder. And so much more.

Now, God doesn’t really answer Cain’s question in the story – Cain’s question about “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But as God matures throughout the Hebrew & Christian scriptures, that question does get answered, again and again.As Kelli Trujillo writes in her article on this topic: “From laws about caring for strangers and aliens…to strident calls for justice for the vulnerable …to Jesus’ challenge to love our neighbors—even our enemies—as we love ourselves…to Paul’s teachings about hospitality…to John’s vision of the just, peaceful kingdom of God come to earth…the answer is yes, yes, yes” we are, indeed, called to be our brother’s keeper.

Trujillo continues: “God invites us to love, stand up for, and kneel down in humility to serve others in our lives. And that call challenges us to step out of tight-knit circles of loved ones and out of our comfortable routines…”

In many ways, this attitude of love is reflected in the golden rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. This ethic of reciprocity is a moral maxim or principle of altruism found in many human cultures and in most of the worlds religions. I know Rev. Elwood Sturtevant of Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church talked to you about the Golden Rule a few weeks ago.

What I would like to introduce you to today is the concept of the Platinum rule. This rule goes one step beyond treating others the way you would like to be treated and instead urges you to treat others the way they would like to be treated. George Bernard Shaw humorously wrote in 1903, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” More recently, business leader Dr. Tony Allesandra, puts it this way: “We need to practice the true intent of the Golden Rule, which is, ‘do unto others the way they want to be done to.’ ”

When we utilize the Platinum Rule, we have to pay attention to what others are feeling, needing and wanting. Allesandra says that we need to shift from at attitude of “this is what I want, so I’ll give everyone the same thing” to an attitude of “let me first understand what they want and then I’ll give it to them.”

Let’s connect this to our moment for all ages, and the exciting news that we will soon be having a New Roots Fresh Stop at First U, serving the people of Old Louisville. And let’s say we are like the deity in the Cain and Abel story in that we prefer meat. Utilizing the golden rule, we might say “Well, we are not fond of fresh fruits and vegetables, so others don’t need access to them, either.” Utilizing the Platinum Rule, however, we would say “Oh, I might not be too fond of fresh fruits and vegetables, but I know they are very healthy and that people in this community don’t have access to them, so even if it is not my preference, I understand this is one way we can fill a need in the community.”

Or let’s take a non-food related example. If a friend of mine experiences the death of a loved one, I might think “Oh, wow, if I were in her place, I don’t think I would want to talk about it.” Utilizing the golden rule, when we get together, I won’t say anything, not wanting to make her feel bad. But what if my friend is the opposite of me, and really does want to talk about it? Utilizing the platinum rule, I would first ask her “Do you like to talk about your loved one?” in order to make space for her to either accept, or decline my invitation based on her preference, not my own. In the long run, practicing the golden rule and distinctly avoiding the topic of her loved one may well stress our relationship beyond what it can handle, whereas if I make space for her to share what her preference is, it allows her to feel how much I love and care about her.

Practicing the platinum rule is one way that we can love one another – not by assuming that others are just like us, but by realizing each person has their own distinct story, and their own distinct needs. And then treating them accordingly, because we are all connected and what benefits our neighbors benefits us as well.

Connected to this is the desire to serve one another. To be of use. One of my favorite lines in our hymnal is from a Marge Piercy poem: “Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.”

There is a debate over whether the golden rule, or altruism, is something that is learned behavior, or if it is something that is genetically hardwired into us. Recent studies indicate the answer is both. Let that sit for a moment – we are genetically hardwired, biologically, to want to be helpful to others, to want to be of use, to serve one another. No wonder it is found across the worlds religions!

Indeed, there is a parable about this – one that has been attributed to a variety of different sources, and is perhaps an ancient Chinese story. Now, though this story compares heaven and hell, I don’t think this parable has anything to do with the afterlife. I think it has to do with this life, here on earth, right now. So I invite you to listen to it with that in mind. It goes somewhat like this:

One day a curious person said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

God showed the curious person two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the person’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished.

Stuart McMillen

Everyone was holding a spoon with a very long handle. And though each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, because the handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The curious person shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “This is what hell is like.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the curious person’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.The curious person saw that, rather than each trying to feed themselves, they were feeding one another.

Stuart Mcmillen

God smiled and said “This is what heaven is like. These people have learned to share and feed one another.”

Heaven and hell – exactly the same. What makes it different is our attitude – it depends on whether or not we decide to serve one another.

Of course, this version of heaven never would have worked if each person were not only serving one another, but receiving that which was given to them. I think this aspect of the story gets left out too often: sometimes we need help.

Our society tells us it is better to give than to receive. As William Sloane Coffin pointed out, “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially the capacity to be vulnerable.”

Being vulnerable, and allowing someone else to meet our needs, can be difficult. We may not like what is being offered. We may be afraid we don’t deserve their help. We may feel embarrassed, that somehow we have failed to be self-sufficient; that we are not good enough; that we didn’t try hard enough.

But think for a moment how good it feels when we are able to meet someone else’s need. Isn’t it its own form of blessing to give someone else the experience of being useful? What we miss when we focus on serving one another is that giving and receiving are two sides to the same coin. When we receive with gratitude and grace, we allow someone else to experience the joy of being of use. We honor their need to serve.

And this is how we love the hell out of the world: by loving, serving, and honoring one another.

We love, serve, and honor one another by taking care of each other’s needs, making sure they are fed, and knowing that in the process, we will be fed as well.

We love, serve, and honor one another by practicing the platinum rule to treat others they way they want to be treated, and by giving others the opportunity to serve us in return.

And we love, serve and honor one another by knowing that we are called – by God or by the Interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, to care for one another and to be each others’ keeper.

May we find the strength, curiosity, courage, and wisdom to practice this in our own lives, by learning to give generously and to graciously receive that which is lovingly given to us by others.

And so that you can have this earworm, too 🙂

the bruise that never heals.

21 Feb

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016


Derby City Roller Girls

Bruises are a part of roller derby. A celebrated part. So much so that it’s not uncommon for players to take pictures of their biggest, most colorful, most interestingly shaped bruises and post them online for the admiration of other players (really – look it up!). Bruises on your shins from where another player’s skate smashed into you. Wheel-shaped bruises on your thigh where you sat down on a pair of skates. Bruises on your hips and shoulders where you were hit or blocked by players on the opposing side. These are bruises that go deep into your tissue, and come out in amazing blues, purples, and blacks that eventually fade to greens, browns and yellows.

It is not uncommon to find bruises on top of bruises, especially on a skater’s hips or upper thighs, which get the most abuse in the game. A few of my teammates even had bruises that never went away – they would get worse and worse, becoming super-sensitive, where even just getting dressed hurt because the area had been mangled – not by one big hit, but by the constant barrage of small hits in the same place, over and over. What was strangest is that sometimes, these most sensitive bruises were invisible, lacking the loud color of bruises that would heal – as if the skin itself has resigned itself to injury.

For one of my teammates, this invisible bruise that never went away eventually hardened into a lump. She ignored it for a while, thinking it was just forming a protective barrier that would eventually heal, but when it didn’t go away even after she stopped playing, she got it checked out. It turned out to be cancer. A cancer caused by repeated minor trauma.

When I first heard about the experience of microaggressions, I immediately related them to bruises in roller derby. Derald Wing Sue, who has studied microaggressions for a decade, defines them as:

“the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

A person from any marginalized group can be the target of microaggression from someone from a dominant perspective: people of color experience them from white people, women experience them from men, people who are transgender experience them from cisgender people, people who are differently abled experience them from the able-bodied. You can experience them based on your sexual orientation, your religion, your social class, and more. What is common to all microaggressions is that they contain a hidden message that is experienced as invalidating, dehumanizing, and demeaning.

Some examples:

  • When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes her, the hidden message being sent is that the Black or Latino man, and others like him, are criminals.
  • When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English”, the hidden message is: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.
  • When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the hidden message is that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles, or that women are less capable than men.
  • When a person uses the term “gay” to describe something they didn’t like, the hidden message is that being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.
  • Or when the outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy” the hidden message is that lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.

These are all examples of microaggressions. And there are many, many more. What they have in common is that they say to someone “You do not belong.” And because these are small, everyday things, the effect of their hidden messages is one that builds up over time. Someone who regularly experiences microaggressions becomes more and more aware of them. The bruise gets bigger and bigger, and more sensitive, until even the slightest touch is experienced as excrutiatingly painful. Sue points out that “These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as ‘small slights,’ but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.”

Now, I suspect that we would all like to believe that we are too enlightened to engage in this type of harmful behavior. But we do, often without realizing it. Sue shares that it is those of us who are well-intentioned who actually engage in the most harmful of microaggressions. Because of course, those who are not well-intentioned are often fin being experienced as racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic.

When experiencing a microaggression from someone who is well intentioned, the target person is placed into what Sue calls a “’damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation. That is, if the person does nothing, [they] may suffer from a sense of low self-esteem, a feeling of not being true to the self, and a loss of self-integrity. Yet, to confront the perpetrator or to raise the issue may result in negative consequences.” Negative consequences like further microaggressions.

Because what often happens when a person confronts the perpetrator of a microaggression is that the perpetrator tries to explain it away, or encourage the target person to “let go” or “get over it.” This results in further microaggressions by giving the message that the target person is off base in their experience, and by indicating that the perpetrator’s intent is more important than the impact it had on the target person.

One can see how this builds up over time. Say I experience a microaggression from someone I care about or work with, I may not say anything. And then it happens again, and maybe again, sometimes from this same person, and maybe sometimes from others as well. And then, because it is weighing on me, finally, I do decide to share my experience. How will I feel if I take this risk, only to be told that it is nothing? Most likely I will feel even worse, more invisible and invalidated.

Personally, I experienced this as a woman in technology prior to entering the ministry. But in truth I got it even worse from other Unitarian Universalists when I had won a sermon award and was constantly introduced as the “young minister” even though I was rapidly approaching 40. Yes, I knew that perhaps I was young compared to the vast majority of people in the room, but if that is what I experienced at nearly 40, what do people who are just out seminary at the age of 25 experience, and how often do we dismiss or overlook “young” ministers? Because that is what it felt like – a dismissal. I got to the point that I would constantly be sharing my age with people to try to prove I wasn’t as young as they thought so that I wouldn’t be so easily dismissed. And they would often laugh it off. It was extremely frustrating.

Of course, this type of microaggression did not carry the threat of danger. It was belittling, and it hurt, but it wasn’t scary. This is not the case for many other people who experience these everyday slights, snubs, and insults.

So how did we, as people who want to respect one another in word and in deed, get to the point where it is our good intentions that have inadvertently allowed us to engage in behaviors that “oppress and engage in prejudicial actions that harm others?” Sue says that “The answer seems to reside in a dominant culture that values ways of being, thinking, and acting that reflects the reality of a primarily Eurocentric, masculine, and heterosexual worldview that is imposed upon racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities.” And because we are a part of our culture, not separate from it, we have picked up on these same traits. Sue points out that whether intentional or not, “oppressors…[feel that they] do not need to understand the thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of various marginalized groups to survive…therefore it is not surprising to find that those who are most empowered are least likely to have an accurate perception of reality.” Indeed, he says, it is this obliviousness that “allows people to misperceive themselves as superior and other groups as inferior; it allows oppressors to live in a false reality.” A reality that we seldom interrogate as rigorously as we should.

It is clear from the the data that our good intentions often contribute to the experience of microaggressions for those who are in a minority. And the effects are far reaching. Sue has found that the “cumulative nature and continued day-in and day-out experience [of being the target of microaggressions] have been found to…contribute to a hostile and invalidating campus and work climate, devalue social group identities, lower work productivity and educational learning, perpetuate stereotype threat, create physical health problems, and assail mental health by creating emotional turmoil, low self-esteem, and psychological energy depletion.” Those who experience microaggressions suffer biologically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

This is where the metaphor of derby bruises and microaggressions breaks down, however. Unlike in derby, where the wheel or the floor suffer no damage when causing a bruise, it is not only the targets of microagression who are hurt in the process. The perpetrators are hurt as well. Sue explains that:

“None of us…would consciously and willingly consent to [perpetrating] such heinous actions. In order to assure the continuance of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, and to keep such injustices hidden…it is desirable to perpetuate a ‘culture of silence’ among oppressed groups as well as perpetrators. When the oppressed are not allowed to express their thoughts and outrage, when their concerns are minimized, and when they are punished for expressing ideas at odds with the dominant group, their voices are effectively silenced. [And] This allows perpetrators to hold on to a belief that they are good, moral, and decent human beings.”

Wherever we intersect with the dominant culture, whether it is because we are white, or male, or cisgender, or heterosexual, etc., we silence the oppressed that are not part of that dominant culture, and this allows us to maintain the illusion that we are good, moral, decent, and even superior whether we consciously believe it to be so or not. And there are costs to us when we perpetrate this type of oppression: cognitive costs, emotional costs, behavioral costs and spiritual costs.

The cognitive costs are demonstrated in the form of cognitive distortion and a false sense of reality. When we become aware of our biases, we often experience “debilitating emotional turmoil” and so we begin to deny our behaviors or rationalize them away. We try to “engage in denial and live a false reality that allows [us] to function in good conscious.”

Emotionally, Sue points out that “the harm, damage, and acts of cruelty visited upon marginalized groups can only continue if the person’s humanity is diminished.” This means that “oppressors lose sensitivity to those that are hurt; they become hard, cold and unfeeling to the plight of the oppressed; and they turn off their compassion and empathy for others. To continue being oblivious to one’s own complicity in such acts means objectifying and dehumanizing [marginalized] people.”

As perpetrators, we may also experience guilt – guilt for being in a dominant group and the realization that we are partially responsible for the pain of others. This guilt can cause us to be defensive, and we may try to deny or diminish the experiences of marginalized people when they share their experiences with us, so that we might avoid further awareness and guilt.

As we begin to feel fear and guilt, we may choose to avoid marginalized people or people who are different from us. We don’t want to continue to cause harm and so we choose to stay away. These are the behavioral costs. We may not go somewhere for fear of what we might do or say that harms others, intentionally or inadvertently. When we avoid such situations, growth becomes difficult to impossible, and as Sue indicates, it “deprives oppressors the richness of possible friendships and an expansion of educational experiences that open up life horizons and possibilities.”

Finally, there are spiritual costs as well. When we oppress, whether intentionally or not, we lose our own humanity for the sake of power, wealth and status. This causes us to lose our spiritual connection with others as we try to dehumanize them. Sue writes that “To allow the continued degradation, harm, and cruelty to the oppressed means diminishing one’s humanity, and lessening compassion toward others. People who oppress must, at some level, become callous, cold, hard, and unfeeling toward the plight of the oppressed.”

I know this is not how I want to live, and I would wager that you don’t either. So what can we do about it? How can we change, and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Sue13 indicates that there are seven things that we can work towards that will help create conditions that make change possible. He says that each of these are required – none of them are sufficient on their own:

First, and foremost we must have regular, prolonged “contact with people who differ from us in race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” We can seek out friendships with those who are different. This doesn’t mean choosing someone as a friend just because they are different, but finding someone with whom we can bond, one of whose characteristics is that they are different in some key way.

Second, we can work together “a cooperative rather than a competitive environment” understanding that when we combine our resources rather than compete for them, there is plenty for everyone.

Third, we can “share mutual goals as opposed to individual ones.” This is a shift in thinking from what I need to what WE need.

Fourth, it is important that learn “accurate information rather than stereotypes or misinformation” – this means questioning, interrogating, things that are presented as true even though they aren’t. For instance, the majority of people who receive food stamps are white, but if you watch the media you will often see a black person pictured when there is a story on the subject. We need to confront such stereotypes and misinformation in search for accurate information.

Fifth, we can work towards “sharing an equal status relationship with other groups instead of an unequal or imbalanced one.” Marginalized people are just that – shoved to the margins, where there is not much strength or power. I am reminded of a school that showcases boys sports, even though the girls teams are winning championships. The microaggressions that the girls experience when constantly seeing the boys teams on the front page of the paper or website can be addressed when leadership understands how this perpetuates inequality and they can work forwards a more equal, balanced status.

Which leads to the sixth characteristic for promoting change, we can choose leadership that is supportive of group harmony and group welfare. At the ballot box, but also in other areas of our lives, we can demand and support leadership that understands these mechanisms of power.

And finally, we can work on feeling a sense of unity, a sense of interconnectedness with all humanity. Even, especially, with those who might seem so different from us.

For more information on what these all look like, I recommend reading Sue’s book “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” or one of the many internet articles he has authored.

In roller derby, the bruise that builds up over time can become cancerous, eating away at the victim and causing them harm. Microagressions are like these derby bruises, building up, causing a person harm, impacting their physical, emotional and spiritual health over time. But unlike in derby, the perpetrators of microagressions also suffer harm, cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and

If we believe in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Then we must put in the effort to face our own failings. It means learning about how we may cause harm to people, even unintentionally, and then working to make it right. It means using techniques such as “oops” and “ouch” when we have erred. It means recognizing that the impact of our words on others matters more than our intent. It means listening to the stories of others with humility and an open mind and heart. This requires constant effort, and does not come easy. And with so much other work of this nature, we will break each others hearts and fail over and over again. But, if we let it, this is what will allow us to grow. May we choose to face the difficult truth that we are each sometimes unwitting perpetrators that cause pain to another, and may humility, love, and understanding allow us to be a part of the healing process whenever possible. Blessed be.

FYI, My teammate with cancer has since recovered.

Footnotes removed, but quotes are from the following sources:

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

missing the mark.

21 Feb

a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 14, 2016


I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, so I’m going in a totally different direction this morning, inspired by this month’s ministry theme of “Good and Evil.” But perhaps the ideas are more connected than I originally thought. I leave that decision to you.

One of my most vivid memories is of excruciating guilt. I was around 9 years old, and had gotten into a fight with my best friend, Keisha. In my anger, I had intentionally vandalized the door of her home. When her parents returned home and saw the damage, they called my mother. I was, not surprisingly, afraid of the repercussions, afraid of the punishment I would endure, should my mother find out the truth. And so I lied. I said that it wasn’t me.

Wise as mothers often are, mine saw right through my lying. Knowing me to be quite pious for a child, she pulled out the family Bible and asked me to swear before God that I had not been the vandal. I collapsed in tears of guilt and shame. I knew I had sinned by committing the acts of vandalism. And I knew I had sinned by lying about it to my mother. I simply could not bear the guilt, the fear of how my soul would be damaged, if I tried to lie to God about it, too.

Growing up, my understanding of sin was pretty straightforward. It was a sin to disobey my parents, and it was a sin to break any of the 10 commandments (chief of which, as a child, was making sure to obey my parents).

As I grew older, the list of what was a sin grew longer. It was a sin if I cursed, a sin if I had sex before marriage, it was a sin if I was jealous of something my friends had, and on, and on. I was taught that each time I sinned, God was disappointed in me and I further separated myself from God. Since I wasn’t Catholic, and didn’t have the sacrament of confession to regularly wipe the slate clean, I instead found myself recommitting to God and Christ at regular alter calls, each time promising to be better. Hoping that my sins would not be so heavy that they would damn me to hell.

Not surprisingly, I gave up when I was in college. I could no longer believe in such a vengeful, mean-spirited God breathing down my neck, ready to abandon me to the fiery pits of hell for eternity for my transgressions. Transgressions which mostly felt like just being human. I realized that the concept of sin that I had grown up with used peoples’ fear of hell to control their behavior. I had not yet heard of the loving God that Universalists propose, who we heard about in our Moment for All Ages, from whom sin might temporarily separate us but with whose presence we will eventually be reunited. As is often the case with those of us who grow up in such rigid traditions, I threw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I entered seminary, I had to learn how to translate a whole lot of religious language that I had stopped using a decade before. I had to look through my own religious baggage and figure out which concepts still were useful to me at and which were not. I became excellent at translating. I can give you my Unitarian Universalist understanding of salvation, hell, prayer, God, redemption, atonement, evil, and so much more.

But at first glance, the concept of sin wasn’t something that I could easily translate. My former experiences got in the way. I found the concept both too small, in that it did not cover enough of the important stuff that I considered wrong, and too large in that it covered too much of the stuff that just felt like being human. As my colleague and mentor the Rev. Sharon Dittmar writes in her paper on this topic for the Ohio River Study Group group, traditional Protestant and Catholic “ideas about sin are literal (follow the Ten Commandments) and [they] notoriously skirt deeply concerning issues like domestic violence, child abuse and hate crimes.” This limited common theology has stuck around for years, because, as she says, “people like their truths easy” – easy enough to be explained with a checklist.

I am not alone in having difficult baggage around the concept of sin. Speaking with a number of my UU colleagues, some who were raised UU pointed out that that they were raised without a belief in sin, and that this did not match their experience of the themselves or of the world. They struggled with the disconnect between the world in harmony they were learning about in their religious education classes and the world in conflict that they experienced. My colleague, the Rev. Christian Schmidt, shares that “Telling people that they are sinful when they aren’t, what fundamentalists sometimes do, is harmful. But telling people they are sinless when they aren’t, the liberal heresy, is also harmful.”

missedbullseyeThe struggle with the concept of sin is not confined to Unitarian Universalists. Not even close! In fact, the translators of the original Hebrew and Christian scriptures must have had a tough time themselves! When we look at the original texts, there is not just one word being translated as sin, but several! In the Hebrew scriptures, 6 different nouns and 3 verbs are all translated as “sin,” as well as several different Greek nouns, verbs and adjectives. The original wordings range from going against God, to doing something which makes us feel guilty. They may mean to go astray, or to do something deserving of punishment. One of the most common Greek words, from which I took the title of this service, simply means “to miss the mark”, which is an archery term that means not hitting the bullseye of the target. You still hit the target, but just not the center.

For hundreds of years, progressive theologians have been redefining the concept of sin. After the Civil War, both Unitarian and Universalist theologians understood sin to be a violation of moral law. Rather than a checklist, it could be understood as anything that violated the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto do”. Building on this, at the beginning of the 20th century Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbsuch wrote that classical theology had neglected the social aspect of sin. He understood that while human beings sin against God, at the same time, we sin against fellow human beings because we are all connected to one another. His definition was that sin is essentially selfishness.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in the mid 20th century, stated that sin is “the consequence of man’s [sic] inclination to usurp the prerogatives of God, to think more highly of himself than he ought to.”

My Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues had a wonderful conversation about this recently. Our understandings of sin, if we choose to the use the term, generally follow more recent theological thinking. Like that of process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. She goes back to the Greek understanding of missing the mark. We also follow Liberation theologians who suggest that sin is found in injustice, in our inhumanity to one another and equates loving your neighbor with loving God. Many contemporary theologians also understand sin not as an action, but as a state of being – that sin is the state of living separate from God, from the divine.

Yet for all the debating over what sin is, and is not, the concept is still not something we talk about very much as Unitarian Universalists. Hollis Huston, writing also for the Ohio River Group, shares that we are “not now [at this moment] talking about sin. We’re talking about injustice, inequality, oppression, exclusion…When we speak of sin it is generally to ban the word.”

But this is to our own detriment. Dittmar explains: “so we have thrown out the baby (sin) with the bathwater (moral rigidity and illogical checklists) in an attempt to free ourselves. In doing so we have lost language to explore, bear, and act upon collective responsibility.” She goes on to explain that “People do wrong every day and the systems of evil revolve around us. And we need a way to say this and reflect this and make personal changes about this when possible so that we are not buried under the weight of collective wrongdoing, and, if we keep it secret, lies.”

Utilizing the concept of sin is a way to engage collective responsibility, to claim the prophetic voice. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for a police officer to beat an unarmed black man to death. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for legislators to vote for legislation that makes the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult. And it is powerful to say that it is a sin to engage in something as seemingly benign as talking poorly behind someone’s back. To call these tragedies, or horrors, or crimes or just bad decisions is all true, but to call them sins does two things: first, it adds a theological dimension that calls to mind an ideal that is larger than the individual, an ideal to which the individual is responsible – whether that ideal is God or the divine, or the interdependent web.

Second, as strange as it may seem for some of us, the language of sin offers hope for change. Think about it: A tragedy occurs, and there is nothing that can be done about it. It is done. A horror implies some perversion that can not be made right. A crime is something that must be punished but makes no allusion to making things right for the victim. Likewise, even a bad decision does not include those who may have been harmed by the actions. To call these actions sins, however, means to enter into an ancient process, whereby a person may sin against another, but then may realize the pain they have caused, and thus have the opportunity to repent, to be sorry for their actions, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Dittmar points out that “Saying that I am a sinner reclaims my role as someone with the ability to make change.” To call these and other actions a sin is to give hope that the sinner may yet still redeem themselves and right relations may be restored. And, as Huston points out: “Awkward is it to take a prophetic stance without language of judgment.”

In addition to calling ourselves to a higher standard, and entering a process that enables change, I see another advantage to restoring the concept of sin to our common vocabulary. That is, by eliminating the concept of sin from our theological language and constructs, we have reinforced the idea of human perfectibility and thus turned humility into a character flaw.

Let me explain. For generations, we liberal religionists have pursued the modern idea of humankind’s “onward and upward” progression. Though it is often left out, what is insinuated in this concept is the perfectibility of humanity – that we will continue onward and upward until we reach perfection.

When we apply this lens to our own individual lives, it means that we should be pursuing perfection. This then makes any flaw an outward indication of our lack of progress. It means we are obviously not good enough, not perfect enough. And so showing our imperfections becomes something to be ashamed of, something that is embarrassing. Something to avoid. Which then shoves all our failings, our struggles, our falling short, into the shadows as deep, dark, secrets. Something we want to deny not only to others, but to ourselves. Our imperfections becomes humiliating. Owning how we miss the mark, how we fall short, how we sin – against each other, against our best selves, against the divine – requires humility, it requires being humble.

It is impossible to call others to justice when we do not acknowledge ourselves how we ourselves contribute to injustice. Now, this may seem like quite a leap from the concept of sin, but think about it. If we understand sin as missing the mark, where do we miss the mark more than in our interactions with one another? We transgress. We microaggress, we contribute to systems of privilege and injustice and oppression whether we want to or not. But we can’t call out the speck in another’s eye unless we can acknowledge the log in our own. It is not surprising that our UU collective conversation around sin decreased as we continued to embrace the modern ideal of perfectability.

Though sin is not something we talk about very much in our tradition these days, it is fascinating to me that both authenticity and vulnerability are key words in our movement right now – because both of these start in being humble, in knowing and owning our not only our limitations but our humanity. Both of these require acknowledging how we have missed the mark. How we fall short. How we break each others’ hearts again, and again, and again. The increasing conversation and desirability of authenticity and vulnerability indicates a shift in our worldview, away from modern perfectibility and towards a more nuanced understanding of human nature. Schmidt says “we should regularly acknowledge that we are neither perfect nor awful, as is our world.”

And so I wonder if we might reclaim the language, the concept of sin. We can continue to talk around it, talk about our imperfections, talk about failures, talk about missing the mark and how we fall short. We can use all sorts of euphemisms, but the thing about euphemisms is that we often use them to soften the blow, to make something more palatable. And is this really what we want when we are coming clean? I can’t help but think about when I am cleaning grease off my hands – the nice smelling soft-soap won’t do it. I need the gritty borax.

Saying that I have sinned, that I have transgressed, that I have fallen short, does not mean that I am unworthy. It does not mean I am wicked. It does not mean I am going to hell. It simply is a way of acknowledging my humanity and setting the stage for reconciliation – with myself, with others, with the divine. In this way, the antidote to sin is not perfection, but grace. Grace that comes from those we have harmed. Grace that comes from ourselves. Grace, in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation. For as difficult as the concept of sin may be for some of us, what is so wonderful about it is that when we miss the mark, we can try again. We can be redeemed, we can begin again in wondrous love. And this is a form of grace in itself – that when we sink down, when the depths of our humanity are revealed, there is still hope. When we are lost in sin, in selfishness, obsessed with our own lives without a care for others, we can experience grace.

We all miss the mark occasionally. Heck, sometimes we miss the target completely. This is part of what it means to be human. If we want to be a prophetic people, perhaps it is time to consider becoming more comfortable with the concept of sin. Not because it makes us afraid for our immortal souls, but because it calls to mind the understanding that we are both saint and sinner, and it creates the opportunity to try again, to seek reconciliation, and to work for change. May it be so. Blessed be.

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.

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