Tag Archives: Pastoral

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

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

Listen:

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.

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?

…Sharing…

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

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

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

spirituality & grief.

10 Nov

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

Listen here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen Keller recognized the universality of grief. She wrote:

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

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

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

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

embracing mortality.

2 Nov

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

Opening Words
excerpts from Mortality by William Knox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Facing Mortality” by Xobius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gawande says that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you are enough.

27 Oct

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

Moment for All Ages

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Blessed be.

talking about death.

1 Feb

Death: We All Do It
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on February 1, 2015

Moment for All Ages

“The Dead Bird”, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip

Sermon

Listen Here:

Isn’t it beautiful how the children took the dead bird into the woods so that they could bury it, have a funeral, sing to it and decorate and visit its grave? They cared for it so gently, so lovingly. I suspect most of us would appreciate that type of loving care when it comes our time to die. And yet, so many of us don’t talk to our friends and family about what that type of loving care might actually look like. Surveys indicate that while 60% of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important” to them, a full 56% of us have not communicated our end-of-life wishes to those friends and family whom we don’t want to overburden.

And yet, we know we’re going to die. Each and every one of us. Sooner, or later. Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, writes “The great triumph (or horrible tragedy, depending on how you look at it) of being human is that our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to understand our mortality. We are, sadly, self-aware creatures. Even if we move through the day finding creative ways to deny our mortality, no matter how powerful, loved, or special we may feel, we know we are ultimately doomed to both death and decay. This is a mental burden shared by precious few other species on Earth.”

Death. It happens to all of us.

Oh, but we’re in such denial about it! And this culture of “death denial” takes many forms. We get uncomfortable talking about our values and wishes for our death around our loved ones. I would bet that a number of you are squirming in your seats even now. Some of us superstitiously feel like talking about might make it happen sooner. We obsess about youth and looking youthful – as if young looking people are immune to death, though we know they are not. We use so many euphemisms to talk about death: we say that someone has passed, crossed over, departed, bought the farm, gone belly up, followed the light, is no longer with us. We embalm and make up the bodies of our loved ones who have died, hoping to make them look more alive, to keep us ever further away from death.

It was not always this way. The 1930’s saw a medicalization of death. Prior to this time, most people died at home. Even today, 70% of people say they would prefer to die at home, but that same percentage, 70% actually die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term care facility.

Prior to this era of medicalization, Doughty writes, “dying in a hospital was reserved for indigents, the people who had nothing and no one. Given the choice, a person wanted to die at home in their bed, surrounded by friends and family. As late as the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 85% of Americans still died at home.” She says “Whereas before a religious leader might preside over a dying person and guide the family in grief, now it was doctors who attended to a patient’s final moments…Medical professionals deemed unfit for public consumption what death historian Phillipe Aries called the ‘nauseating spectacle’ of mortality…The hospital was a place where the dying could undergo the indignities of death without offending the sensibilities of the living.”

Now, in order to not offend our own or our loved ones sensibilities, we don’t talk about our own death, though we sometimes seem obsessed with the deaths of others. Only 7% of people report having had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor. But what is so baffling is that we want to have these types of conversations. Maybe only 7% have actually had them, but 80% of people say that if they were seriously ill, they would want to talk to their doctor about end-of-life care.

So we want to have these conversations, with our doctors, with our families, with our friends. But we don’t. We don’t because, well, because they are difficult conversations to have! We’ve spent most of our lives pretending as though we would never die, so to have a conversation means that we have to acknowledge this reality, if only for a moment. And that can be scary.

What I want you to take away from today, however, is that as scary as having these conversations may be to some of you, they are often very reassuring. They put your mind, and your loved one’s minds, at ease. Listen to some of these testimonials:

I had many end of life conversations with my mother and they made me feel like her passing and death was complete. Nothing was left unsaid.

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I grew up with the blessing of living near all four of my grandparents. As they grew aged, they moved in with our family…[On my grandfather’s last day of life, he] had spent hours outside planting a fig tree seedling with two of his grandsons. He enjoyed his dinner and went to bed. In the middle of the night, I heard him call out from his room next to mine. I went to him and turned on a lamp. “What is it, Grandpa?” “I’m cold,” he said, with a far away look in his eyes. I roused my mother…As we spread out a blanket to warm him, our eyes met with a knowing look. I woke my father, his son, and told him to go to Grandpa, that I thought he might be dying. Startled and afraid, my father said, “Call 9-1-1!” But I sat still on the edge of the bed and thought of my grandfather’s clear message over the years. “Dad, Grandpa is 94. He has had a good, long life. He told me he is not afraid to die…This is a good way to die. At home, with all of us around him.” We called Grandpa’s other two sons and the three men circled their father’s bed as he took his final breaths. My paternal grandfather died the way so many Americans say they wish to die: at home, peacefully, with loved ones surrounding them.

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When my husband’s step-mother was diagnosed with brain cancer last February, we were all in crisis mode. She was confused and disoriented, and experiencing a lot of pain. Thankfully, we had engaged in conversations about end of life prior to this and my father in law felt as though he knew what her wishes were in a general sense. As steroids and chemotherapy shrunk the tumors, my mother in law regained her capacity to engage in meaningful conversation. We had many. We talked about treatment options and the potential outcomes of those treatments. We talked about what was important to her in terms of the goals she would hope to achieve in her life, and what her hopes were for her healthcare. Some days we talked about the coming months. Some days we talked about what the final days would look like. Many of these conversations were just between her and I, in quiet moments while chemotherapy drugs were dripping into her veins. Many others included her children and her husband. A few included her health care team – she was abundantly clear about certain aspects of her care and had specific wishes around intervention she would and would not be accepting of.

We revisited these specific wishes with each change in her health circumstances. And when her goals for her care changed, we were sure to communicate those goals to her health care team. Now, 11 months after diagnosis, we are near those final days. She is more confused now and it’s hard to know for sure what she does and does not understand. Yet, we continue to talk. This journey has been a difficult one. There is nothing easy about watching someone you love experience pain and distress. But the conversations we have had, and the confidence that we, as a family, feel in knowing her wishes for her final days, are a gift. A gift that she gave to us by being so open and courageous in speaking about her life and her death with us. We are sad. But we are not in distress. We are facing these days with her, advocating for her, and supporting her health care team in honoring her wishes.

What a gift it can be, to you and to your loved ones, to have these conversations, as uncomfortable as it may seem in the beginning. And, lest you younger folks be tuning out, these are not just conversations to have with older people, as these next stories demonstrate.

August 13, 1992 was the day of all heart break for myself and husband, well the whole family, really. Our 25 year old son was injured in an accident and lived on total life support for three and a half weeks. Then the decision was made to turn it off and just wait while he died. Oh there is much of this story I could tell you, but what I want to share is that now, all these years later, I realize …I had a responsibility. It should have been that even the younger family members were included in a conversation about the “what if’s” and what would you want done. Those decisions were upon our shoulders after our child was injured. It would have made a difference if only there had been some prior input. Don’t forget the younger ones.

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My 28th birthday is coming up. As I inch closer to 30, my friends like to joke around that I’d better get ready to settle down. “When are you getting married? When will you buy a house? Isn’t it time for you to have children? It’s time to become an adult!” They’re kidding of course– none of those things are in the cards for me just yet.

While I may not be pregnant or in escrow yet, or even close, I can relax knowing that I’ve already made some very good adult decisions. At the age of 21, I made the decision to prepare an Advanced Directive to explain my wishes in the event of a catastrophic medical event. It was an odd move for someone my age, but my friends and family weren’t terribly surprised at my unconventional decision. I became interested in the study of death and dying while getting my Sociology degree in college. During college, I took a job on the Oncology floor of a hospital. During my time there, I experienced my first patient death, and many more after that. While we could anticipate the coming death of many patients, some patients declined suddenly, leaving the patient and family unprepared when the moment arrived. As I witnessed my first “hallway conversation” with the stunned family outside of the hospital room where their loved one was being resuscitated by the Code Blue team, I saw the decisions they had to make. Reflecting later, I wondered what I would do in their shoes…I knew I never wanted my parents or boyfriend to stand in the hallway and make that choice. It wasn’t easy, but I wrote out my wishes and sent a copy to my parents and my physician. It was hard for them to see, but I know they respected my decision…My generation has questions, but it’s hard to think about your own mortality in your twenties and thirties. In this transitional stage of life where we’re busy planning the rest of our lives, I believe this is an incredibly important conversation to have.

These stories, and there are many more as well, come from The Conversation Project – an organization dedicated to helping these end of life conversations to take place. “Too many people” they say, “are dying in a way they wouldn’t choose, and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain.” Their goal is to transform our culture so that we are able to have more open conversations about the kind of care we do and do not want for ourselves in our last days – not waiting to have them in the intensive care unit when it may be too late, but around the kitchen table while not under duress. The Conversation Project reminds us that having a conversation with friends or family about our values around our death isn’t really about dying, but about figuring out “how [we] want to live, till the very end.”

They have a “Starter Kit” for helping make progress in having these conversations. I will have copies of them available up here on the stage after the service, or you can go online and look at them – their website is theconversationproject.org. They recommend that the place to start is by yourself, thinking about the things that are most important to you. What do you value most? What can you not imagine living without? Then finish this sentence: “What matters to me at the end of my life is _____.”

When you’re ready to have the conversation, first consider the basics. Who do you want to talk to? Who do you trust to speak for you? When would be a good time to talk? Where would you feel comfortable talking? What do you want to be sure to say?

The Conversation Project even gives some suggested ways that you might begin the conversation, because those first words are often the most difficult.

If starting with friends and loved ones feels too overwhelming, it might be easier to start with strangers. The Eiderdown restaurant in Germantown was recently the location of a “Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death” event where people had dinner and, well, talked about death. One attendee shared that “it was reassuring to share a meal with others who care about the subject.”

Or you might want to go to a Death Cafe. Over coffee or tea and some light munchies, people talk about death – what it means to them, how they want it to go, what their experiences of it are, and so much more. You can find out when they are happening locally on their website: deathcafe.com.

And of course, as your minister, I am available to preside over the dying, guide a family in grief, and help you process your thoughts and wishes. We can talk alone, or with your friends or family, in whatever capacity works for you. If it is as the Rev. Forrest Church said, that “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die,” then it makes sense to talk to a religious professional about your thoughts, hopes, fears and beliefs about death and dying.

Every one of us will die, whether we are ready or not. It relieves a burden on our minds and hearts, and in the minds and hearts of our friends and family, when we can share our values around death and dying with them – when they know that they can honor our values in our last moments. Let us not participate in this culture of denial. There is a time to be born, and a time to die – and a time to talk about the death that we want for ourselves and our loved ones. May it be so. Blessed Be.

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