Factions We Love

Factions We Love Worship 11.4.18Reading: from Resistance by Barry Lopez

[Sometimes I dimly recall the days] when I felt, like many others, that my life served no purpose. Do you remember any such days?

It was as though we all lived in tunnels then, crowded in with some stranger’s furniture, with more furniture arriving all the time.

For me, the terrifying part was the ease with which you could lose your imagination – just abandon it, like a gadget.

Everything was supplied, even if you had to pay for it all…

In every quarter of life it seemed, we were retreating into fundamentalism. The yes/no of belief, the in/out of fashion,…the hot/cold of commitment,… the forward/backward of machinery, the give/take of a deal.

Anyone not polarized became an inconvenience…People endorsed the identification of enemies and their eradication, just to be rid of some of the inevitable blurring.

We didn’t hear enough then about making the enemy irrelevant. No one said, loud enough to be heard over the din…, “Let’s make something beautiful, so the enemy will have one less place to stand.”

Sermon: Factions We Love

Last December, we held a holiday party for our then-Sanctuary guest, Ingrid.

It turned out, it was also a going-away-party, since the next morning she left to take sanctuary at the UU church in Boulder, where she is still.

But we’d learn that later.  That night, most of us only knew it as an evening for organizing, and courage-boosting, and community-building.  And celebrating the holidays, together.

Ingrid had cooked posole all day and the social hall smelled so good.  The room was filled not just with church members but with members of the wider community.

It was the perfect example of the tangled blessing.  

Because actually we were together to resist this great injustice embodied in this fierce and now-famous woman who had run out of options for legal residency in this country where she’s spent over half her life, and where her two children were born and raised. She’d decided that the best alternative to complying with a deportation order to return to a country where she faced danger and knew mostly no one was what I’ve come to think of as “church jail.”   

Having Ingrid here those few months was a daily reminder of this humanitarian crisis we’ve created in this country – a crisis that’s been made worse in recent months through the implementation of so-called Zero Tolerance aka family separation aka generational trauma.

Except that on that night it was not traumatic, it was joyous, and invigorating, and regular…beautiful.

It was a room of all ages and different cultures, beliefs and citizenship statuses, professions and languages.  

It was courageous love in practice, and the best of who we are.  

About mid-way through the night, I heard some talk about the night ending with a piñata.  

Although I had some anxiety about the dark and the bat and the small children running around, it was una fiesta, so, que bueno!  

That is, until someone told me that one of the piñatas was a giant Trump head.   

Either Eleanor or Sean or maybe both asked me, when they heard, they came to me and asked with a certain urgency: are we really ok with that?

I confess, for a flash I thought: maybe?

And then I remembered myself. And us.

And I said no, of course not.  

We can’t be ending the night by violently attacking Trump’s head.  Even if it is just papier-mâché.

Even if it was filled with candy, as my 10-year-old told me angrily that night.

He was so mad at me for stopping it.

He still brings it up sometimes, whenever we talk about Trump, because it wasn’t just about the candy.  

How it wasn’t fair I wouldn’t let him smash the Trump head piñata.  

It would have been so fun, to hit it and watch it fly, while the other kids, and probably some grown ups, cheered around him.

I know, I say, but it’s not who we are.

Which, most of the time, I believe.

We are living in a time of profound political polarization, and division.  I’ve heard it said so often in recent years, it feels almost cliché.  

Polarization in the US is not entirely new, but there are some particular ways that it is playing out differently today.  Those who have studied it say it has its roots in Nixon’s impeachment, when the Republican party was in disarray.  Ideological purity and refusal to compromise became strategies, tactics for reclaiming power.  Successful ones, it turns out.  

Democrats were slow-ish to pick up on the new patterns, but with the Clinton impeachment of the 90s, and the Bush/Gore supreme court decision – they got up to speed, so that by the time Barack Obama was president, despite his sweeping rhetoric, and audacity of hope, habits were well-established, as the grooves of polarization were by then, well-worn.

Most everything calls it political polarization.  But it’s not really confined to the politics these days.  

As the organization “More in Common” describes it, “bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table.” And from personal experience I’d add, from school playgrounds and PTA meetings to the workplace and the hospital room.

It’s a phenomenon that US Scholar Steven Webster describes as “affective polarization.” Affective = the heart.  It’s basically the trend towards mutual dislike between Republicans and Democrats, starting with the politicians themselves, but then over time, translating into the electorate directly.

As a recent article by Stephen Marche put it, “Political adversaries regard each other as un-American; they regard the other’s media, whether Fox News or the New York Times, as poison or fake news.  A sizable chunk also don’t want their children to marry members of the opposing party….affective polarization is a crisis that transcends Trump. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, the underlying threat to American stability would be as real as it is today.  Each side – divided by negative advertising, social media, and a primary system that encourages enthusiasm over reason – pursues ideological purity at any cost because ideological purity is increasingly the route to power.”

Today marks the beginning of our new series Divided No More. It’s a series we planned a long time ago – probably the most obvious series to decide on for the whole year.  Because we anticipated the energy many would feel in this final push towards election day – energy, or anxiety, or exhaustion. Maybe all of these.

It’s not unusual for Unitarian Universalists to be dedicated, democratically speaking.

And of course you can take that to mean both the governmental system and the party called democrat, as progressive politics and progressive religion seem to have an even greater correspondence than I’ve seen before, which is saying something.

When I first came into Unitarian Universalism, I was really passionate about the need to distinguish between religious and political liberalism.  I had heard stories of UU communities in the 1980s being confused with gatherings for the democratic party, and I understood how critical it was to ask ourselves how we are living in to our moral, ethical, and theological calling – our faith.  Rather than accidentally parroting the framework and the strategies of the political left.  

I admit, however, this has become more confusing in the past few years, as this sorting has reached far beyond some quarantined space called “politics,” and instead has indicated a kind of cultural, tribal, and even – as Emma Green described in a recent Atlantic article – religious – ethos.

Modern politics, especially on the right, has often included a religious component – the so-called values voter, the moral majority, and the other false-equivalencies of religiosity and Christian fundamentalism have been the story of conservative politics for nearly my whole life.  

But in the past few years, another sort of religious alignment has grown, this time on the left, or rather an alignment with those who are explicitly non-religious.

Nearly 30 percent of democrats – and the most active and motivated among them – according to recent surveys – identify as unaffiliated religiously.

I wondered how in these surveys Unitarian Universalists were counted, though…?

Because often you get questions like: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or none of the above…” or maybe even “Atheist/agnostic.”  Which one would we pick?

Green reports that these same “non-religious” extremely enthusiastic folks are currently embracing their political identity and affiliation in ways similar to how they might otherwise embrace religious and cultural identity and practices.

As Green says: “This [progressive] political identity … is basically acting as a replacement for people who maybe a generation or two before would identify as Catholic or as Jewish…..the Democratic Party is going through a transformative moment of both sentiment and identity.  Progressive politics [offers] a form of meaning making, especially if [people] are disconnected from other forms of ethnic or religious identity….

So much of this is wrapped up in people’s ideas of who they are and where they belong.”

In today’s often-isolating world, the flip side of political polarization is the fact of these  factions that also feed us, factions that we love – and that love us, communities and affiliations that become in and of themselves, antidotes to loneliness, sanctuaries of mutual support, and safety, and again – belonging.  

I mean, it feels good to repost that highly partisan meme.  It feels good to get the likes.  And it is comforting to watch Rachael Maddow and Chris Matthews – like gathering around a cozy campfire with your people who speak your language.  

And, there’s nothing like a shared enemy to help a group bond, and strengthen that shared identity – deepen that sense of belonging.  

Which is why, instead of understanding this moment as affective polarization, we’d be better off thinking of it as affective identification.  Where we are feeding this shared longing for an ongoing sense of community and emotional support – a sense of belonging – from those who share our same orientation.

With all this said, we should be clear that the rising sense of polarization and division is an overwhelmingly white phenomenon.  

White people in the US are more divided and polarized than ever before.  

For most people of color, this sense of division, and danger from “the other,” – this is old news.  So that what feels like regression for some, might actually feel more like progress for others, where white folks – at least some – are actually, finally, waking up.

As Marche describes:  “During the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush years, there really wasn’t as much of a difference between the racial attitudes of white people in both parties.  That’s no longer true…According to [recent surveys], half of Republicans agree that increased racial diversity would bring a “mostly negative” impact to American society…The Republican Party has become the party of racial resentment.  If it seems easier for Americans to see the other side as distinct from themselves, that’s because it is.”

After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the public radio program Fresh Air replayed an interview from last April, where Terry Gross spoke with Derek Black – a former leader in white nationalism who has since had a change of heart and now works to fight it.  

In the wake of the worst anti-semitic act of violence on US soil, Fresh Air replayed the conversation, as many of us try to understand what has led to the increased power and legitimacy given to the forces of hatred, racism, and prejudice in this country – and, how to stop it. One of the things Black described was how white nationalists intentionally seized Obama’s presidency to speak into the unresolved and sometimes sub-conscious racial anxiety and racial resentment felt by many white Americans.  

As the interview describes: “Polls consistently show that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans believe that they experience more discrimination and more prejudice than people of color or than Jews, which is factually incorrect by every measure that we have. … [But] by feeding that sense of grievance and by playing to these ideas of your country is being taken away, [that] things are changing…” self-identified white nationalists have been able to make real headway into local and even statewide elections.

This week as I was explaining to my kids, or really, failing to explain to my kids, the history of anti-semitism, I started to feel overwhelmed at what feels like an infinite well of unresolved trauma across human history, and the incomprehensible failure – across all the generations – to do the real work of reconciliation, reparation; the failure to tell the stories so much so that we now have such a terribly underdeveloped language to even speak about the violence we have done, and had done to us.

As my teacher Dr. Vincent Harding used to say, “when it comes to creating a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society,  America is still a developing nation.”

When we sit with our history, and really let it sink in.  The fact that we find ourselves in this moment seems not just understandable, but predictable.  There’s so much human work that was left undone, work that does not just go away with the passing of time.  Work of mending and tending, healing and transforming; holy work, spiritual work, religious work.  

Work that asks us to step back from political affiliation as a stand-in for religion, and instead ask what our actual religion offers us, and requires of us in these times, in this moment.

Because while the political framework might give us a sense of belonging – it is a limited sense, and one that contradicts the most central claim of our faith – this claim that we all belong to each other.  

All of us.  That we are all ultimately in this life together, interconnected, interdependent. And that salvation, liberation, healing, wholeness – these are for all of us, or none.

And here I want to underscore that central claim of our faith does not requires us to seek common ground –  but only a common humanity.  Sean’s going to speak more on this next week.

And it’s not even a claim that affirms an underlying same-ness.  

Rather, it’s a commitment that I sometimes think of as theological self-differentiation.

Where we stubbornly refuse to let the actions of another dictate the orientation of our own hearts.  Where we commit to seeing in the other – regardless of their actions, their words, their choices – a human. A human with a story.  A human with complex and contradictory and often irrational beliefs – like all humans.  A human who loves and longs for belonging, as all humans do.  

It is a faith commitment to the idea that there is a through-line across all of us – a connective force, that cannot be undone, a connective force of love.  And it is a commitment that no one, no matter what, is beyond the reach of Love, and Love’s transforming power. 

Most of all it is a commitment to live out of this commitment, everyday.  To put our energy into making something beautiful, so that the ugliness has one less place to stand.

Or rather, it’s a commitment to try.

Because some days it seems totally right and good that we should smash a Trump head piñata.  

So then on those days, the commitment is also to remember that the reach of love includes us, to receive that grace too.

Which can sometimes be the hardest thing.

And then the commitment is just to trust that there is always so much more at work than we can see, or know, or understand. And so we can only give thanks, that we can be a part of it all, and keep trying do our part, in love.

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Past as Prologue

There was a time in my ministry here where I felt like every meeting or gathering I was in, I found myself saying “well that’s a can of worms.”  It got so common that at a certain point I just started saying: “wow, there are so many cans, and so many worms.”

But lately I’ve realized, I’ve started to say something else: “how did we get here?”

The two are not disconnected.

My first few years at Foothills were like one big scratch and sniff sticker….like…what’s this one…?

Congregational life is often a lot like family life, people get so accustomed to holding the stories close, we stop seeing what’s right in front of us.  It’s mostly not intentional or conscious. It’s just – the water we swim in.

It’s not until someone new shows up and simply sees things, steps into a story already in progress, notices what has become invisible to everyone else.  It’s like suddenly everyone feels like they have new eyes.  They suddenly see stuff that was there all along but they had no idea.

For example, growing up, most nights we ate our family dinner at bar stools around our kitchen counter.  We did not have a large kitchen.  And there were five of us.  So it was pretty tight.  But I never really thought about it, or saw that it was an issue, until one of my friends came over and was like, why does your dad have to eat all smushed up against the wall? I’d never noticed!

That was my job those first couple years, to be that friend that came for dinner.  Just show up and see.  Sometimes name things out loud.  Often not.  Sometimes just my presence was enough.

I showed up in a lot of places, wherever I could get an invite, and sometimes I didn’t even wait for that, I just showed up.  You all were really gracious, thank you.  Which is why, at a certain point it really was: so many cans, so many worms.

Until that is, some time last year – this is my 7th year – our 7th year by the way – so in my sixth year of showing up – it became apparent – there was so much out on the table, everywhere.  We needed to find a way to make some sense of it all.  Understand the story we are all in, the story we’ve been writing even as we’ve been living it.  Put it all in order, try to get a sense of the cause, and effect.  How did we get here?

Any time any of us show up in a community, a family, a country – we always arrive in the middle of a story already in progress, a story that starts impacting us and that we start impacting right away – when we move to town, or walk through the doors, or when we are born, or adopted, or when we get married.  It’s what Rebecca Parker means when she talks about inheriting covenant before we create covenant.

Covenant is one of those church words that can be kind of inaccessible, I know, so let me break it down a little.  At its most basic level, covenant is a promise of enduring relationship between 2 or more people.  It’s a promise of loyalty, and love, and it requires an ongoing practice of trust, and accountability.  So what’s she’s saying is, before we even begin to choose what commitments we will make in our lives, we inherit this web of relationships, promises that have produced us, this moment, commitments that have created us, these lives here and now – commitments kept, and un-kept; the web that has held, and failed, broken, and pieced back together in triumph, and loss, and reconciliation, and redemption.

You’ve probably heard about these studies that have come out, about generational trauma, and historical trauma. They are pretty remarkable.

They show that even if we are multiple generations from the direct trauma experience, if somewhere in our family there was trauma, we carry these things in our DNA – as if we ourselves had been there,

and also, we are learning the ways that trauma accumulates across generations.

This has been especially apparent in Native American populations, Jewish holocaust survivors, Japanese Internment survivors, African Americans, and I’d have to imagine, is what is brewing in today’s immigrant community, especially those who have known family separation and zero tolerance.

This accumulation of grief, and pain, and unresolved grief.

Sometimes these studies have met with a lot of resistance.

Which makes sense.

Since ancient times, people have been uneasy with this idea of the “sins of the father” being passed down generation to generation.  It’s one of the points of tension throughout the Hebrew Bible – the Torah talks about God taking out vengeance for three or four generations past the original offense, but then in the prophets –

the text promises no such thing would ever happen.  That each person gets a fresh start.

But these studies remind us of something I think we know – even if we wish it weren’t true – we are all always stepping into a story that started long before we arrived, and this story has an impact on us, necessarily, inescapably.

People resist these studies because we don’t want to believe that we’re stuck in whatever story our parents, or grandparents lived in – that we are trapped in those same loops of pain, and struggle. Certainly, we do not want to believe that we are caught in a story where for nearly the first 150 years of this country, women did not have the right to vote – because we were not considered a full person, with full rights.  But here we are.

If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it is that this is the story we have inherited, and it does impact us.  And sometimes, in weeks like this, it feels exactly like we are caught in a loop.

But actually what the studies show, is that although we are inevitably impacted by this inheritance, we are not caught forever.  If we can learn this story we have stepped into, understand it, then we can still choose.

Or more accurately, if we can learn the stories.

Because – as Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk put it, to imagine the past as a single story – is dangerous.

It risks reducing human complexity to something singular, two dimensional – when really life is always so many things, so many contradictions and complexities.  To insist on a single story requires flattening human experience, and choosing one slice or one lens over another – inevitably erasing some people’s experience, or erasing parts of who we are and what we know and what we care about in order to produce that clean, linear narrative.

It’s why when we talk about each of us having a piece of the truth, we should be careful.  Because we don’t mean to imply that all these pieces fit together in a single, straightforward, linear narrative.  Human beings and time and life are in reality none of these things.

Which does not stop us from wishing they were.

We aren’t just predisposed to nostalgia, as in, a sentimental longing for the past.   I mean, we are – we all have a tendency to a romanticize some other time, and place.

But not only that.  We are also predisposed to imagining that the past we long for was a universal reality on a singular universal timeline.  That it was a reality we all loved, and then we lost.  Which means that if we could just figure out the one thing that changed that reality, and then eradicate it.  We’d all be back on track.

Which is basically the entire theory behind Make America Great Again.

And actually when I think about it from this perspective, I get it.

Because I think we all can relate with this longing.  Any of us who know loss, and grief, especially an accumulation of loss, and grief – across lifetimes, and families, and whole communities.

Any of us who long to belong where we are.

It’s why I was especially heartened when I read this account about Fort Collins recently – it’s from a historian, speaking about realities in our community.  Realities I’m guessing that many of us would recognize.

It reads:

“City planners [have been] hard pressed to keep up with the city’s growth, especially in the rapidly developing suburbs.  Fort Collins population [has] almost tripled over twenty years.

New industries [have been] relocating in the area, attracting more people.  Builders [have] tried to keep pace with the growth as all-time records [have been] set for private construction.

Rapidly increasing enrollment [has] also led to a building boom on the CSU campus.  Enrollment doubled in just six years, and then almost doubled again five years after that.  The University [has] dedicated a new and larger stadium.

The social consciousness of [our time has] found expression through a variety of organizations and activities [in our community]. [Our city and CSU have also faced issues] concerning discriminatory practices against blacks and Mexican-Americans, [although] CSU [has] avoided the violence experienced by other campuses across the country.”

Although somewhat dry, it all sounds relatively accurate, like one true version of the story of us.

Which is why I found it heartening, and even hopeful.

Because – let me read you the final lines.

It reads, “The turbulent 1960s ended with little resolved on the issues of discrimination, and war.  While the unrest would carry over into the 1970s, more peaceful years were ahead.”

Right, what I just read was not actually about Northern Colorado today.  It was a report about Northern Colorado from more than a half a century ago.

Which is why I found this somewhat dry report truly heartening, and even hopeful – because it was this plain-faced reminder of the ways we inherit covenant before we create covenant.

This little snippet from our town decades ago reminds us of the story we have stepped into.  It’s the cans, and the worms, and it’s how we got here. It tells us – like Jerry said about the upcoming building campaign: we can do this.  Even if we were not there personally – and I’m guessing most of us were not – we carry these lessons in our collective breath, in our buildings, in the streets and in our schools –

here is the story we have inherited, the promises that made our lives and this place possible – and within and between and among us all live the lessons and learning we need from 50 years ago, to now.  This time the Museum volunteers described as “some of Fort Collins most turbulent years.”

History is a gift, and challenge, and a warning.  So that, once everything is on the table, we can learn, and we can choose, and we can create.  We can choose what values we will carry forward to anchor our present, and chart our future. We can choose the promises our lives will make, the stories we are going to write, the people we will commit our lives to, the vision and values our lives will serve.  In our city, our church, our families, our country.

It’s why I haven’t completely toppled over this week, even as Brett Kavanugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.  Because we know this story, it is our story.

And also, we know the story isn’t over yet.  We’re still writing it. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” Maya Angelou writes.

“But if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

There are still more stories that are a part of us that still need to come to the table, more we can learn, more truth and complexity to hold, more power and grief and grace to bring.

So we still have the chance, even today to learn, and to create, and to choose the promises that our lives will make, the inheritance we will offer for the generations yet to come.

Together we still have this chance to write the future, a future we will not cede to anything less than a vision of abundant life, for us all.

 

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The Lure of the Local

Part 1: Community in Place and the Longing for Home 

For a couple of years, in what now feels like another lifetime, I oversaw a new play development program with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.

New plays were a new idea – I mean, Shakespeare Festival.  But the thought was – they could use the company that they’d already hired to put on Othello or Hamlet to give emerging playwrights a chance to experience their work out loud, and on its feet.

In our early conversations we agreed that since there were a lot of resources for playwrights living on either coast, but hardly any focused on the middle-of-the-country, we’d focus on supporting playwrights living and working in Colorado, and in the states immediately around us.

So over my two seasons, I ended up working with playwrights from Arizona and Utah and most often, from Colorado – Boulder, and Denver, Summit County and Colorado Springs, and most memorably – Telluride.  Memorably because the name of his play was Telluride.  The Musical.

If you’ve been to Telluride you can probably already guess at the scenes and songs…in most cases they were expressing the regular tensions present a mountain town – just the extreme version that is Telluride.

First, the undeniable beauty of the place. Especially in Telluride where it’s not too easy to get to, it’s a connecting experience that in and of itself creates a sense of shared identity.

It’s often the reason that people come, and stay.

Which is what also has brought in developers.  That have built condos and shopping centers that block some of those amazing views, and have exponentially increased the cost of living.

And of course, this has also brought in all the Starbucks.  Eventually one for every corner. Supplanting each of the local coffee houses, one after another.

Surrounding all of this, a non-stop schedule of festivals, especially amazing in Telluride.  From Blue Grass to Extreme Sports.  And from Films to Fire, Comedy to Hot Air Balloons. They are year-round.

Which also means there is a non-stop flood of tourists year round.  There to experience the magic that is Telluride.  This many tourists though makes the town necessarily feel a little like Disneyland.  A pretend place filled with things to consume rather than a community where people actually live.

I don’t remember all the details of the play, but what I do remember is the underlying grief its author had for this place that he loved. A place that was still – beautiful, charming, filled with culture – still the same place in latitude, and longitude – but a place that had also somehow, somewhere along the way, stopped feeling like home.

It is a common longing in today’s high-paced multi-centered, globally-oriented world: to feel connected to the place where you are in a way that feels like home.  It’s a longing that artist and writer Lucy Lippard calls The Lure of the Local – which she describes as “the pull of place that operates on each of us…the geographical component of the psychological need to belong.”  I’d call it the need to belong where you are.  The longing for the place where you live to feel like it has an authentic claim on you, and your life, and you on it.

Belonging is a basic human need – right after the most basics of air, food, shelter, safety. To feel accepted, to be known, to feel connected and ease.  We cannot survive without it.  An article I read once described belonging as one of three reasons that someone comes, and keeps coming, to church.  The other two are significance and transcendence.

People come – see what you think – to feel like their life matters – significance; and we come to feel connected to something much greater – transcendence.  And then we come for that sense of belonging.

Best of all is when we can experience belonging in a way that connects to these other two – belonging in a shared since of making a difference, and in a way that feels connected to the great big everything.  I call this an experience of the holy.

It is a sense of belonging that is existential and transformative.

Belonging is a basic human need, but unlike food or shelter, getting to this experience – even it its most basic, let alone the existentially satisfying, transformational experience of belonging is not simple.  Because unlike the other human needs, belonging is a profoundly personal, individually-determined experience – where the story of your life comes into contact with the story of another, and of a whole community, a place, a country, a world.  It’s why Peter Block talks about belonging as alchemy – there is always some mystery and magic involved.

The practice of belonging today is often made possible through the miracle of technology – social media and video calls and texts – they can be literally lifesaving.  But still, there is the reality of our bodies.  And the longing our bodies have to be in proximity to other bodies.  IRL.  The feeling of a hand clasped.  The comfort of breathing the same air.  Staring out the same window. The connection made knowing we have these common daily experiences: schools, parks, restaurants, hiking trails, traffic, community ordinances, protests and prayer vigils, construction, weather.

We have a longing to belong where we are.  To know that nearby are those eyes that will light up when we enter, voices that will celebrate with us when we come into our own power, and those who will join their strength with our own to do the work that needs to be done.  And most of all, those who will meet us for dinner after a terrible day, whether by way of our toddler, our teenager, or our ten hours of listening to the coverage of terrible and traumatic supreme court hearings.

I know, there have been other terrible, traumatizing news weeks over the last two years. Shocking events with significant impact on the most vulnerable in our country.  And still this relentless reality need not reduce what happened in Thursday’s Senate Hearing to something routine. I didn’t get to listen to the whole thing, and still from what I did hear, by 4, I was ready to go home.  Order in Chinese, and tell my kids to pull out the TV trays.

Instead I had been invited/required by my friend who serves on its Board to attend a thank you dinner for La Familia / The Family Center for its major donors and community partners. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d promised her I’d be there, I totally would’ve sent an email saying I was calling in “over it.” With apologies.

But instead, I went.  And there I was greeted, not just by my friend, but also another friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We immediately hugged – all three of us with simply the words: This day.  And then, on top of that, there was a whole crew of Foothills folks I didn’t know would be there, a few of whom I hadn’t had a chance to catch up with for a while.  Over dinner we shared stories of rage and heartache, tales of grandchildren and travel adventures, news about local non-profits, questions about the church.  And along the way, we heard about the work of this organization – La Familia – that is right now doing the everyday work of building up the same communities most impacted by these news stories –  children, families, seniors – our neighbors, friends, family.

It didn’t make the grief go away, the rage, the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about the fact that it will take my lifetime, and a good part of my children’s lifetimes before we will have a supreme court that does not include a man who is the amalgamation of every arrogant privileged jerk I knew (and avoided) in college.  But it did give me a sense that I was not alone, that life continues.  In beauty, and joy, and salsa music.  And it reminded me in real time – that although we cannot save everything, fix everything, at a certain scale, that is in the smaller scale, the relational – the local, the personal, there can be goodness, and healing, and change for the better.

“The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time,” Peter Block writes. And everything comes down to two questions: How we will be when we gather together? And what we will we create together?

Part 2: Being the Church for Northern Colorado

When Kisa Gotami lost her only son, the Buddhist story goes, she was understandably, wrecked.

She could not accept that he had died so suddenly, so young.  She went to one of her neighbors, begging him to help her find a cure that would bring him back to life. The neighbor told her he couldn’t help, but maybe the Buddha could – he was nearby.

Kisa went running to him, right away, carrying the body of her young son.  Please, bring him back.

To her relief and elation, he said he could.  Go back into the village, he said, and gather mustard seeds from every household where they have never been touched by death.  Bring those mustard seeds back to me, and I will create the medicine that will bring your son back to life.

Eagerly, she went, house to house.  Knocking, and asking, and listening each time to the story of the way that each and every one knew loss, and grief, and suffering.  She did not manage to gather a single mustard seed.  But instead she came to know that she was not alone in her pain.  She understood that everyone knew loss, and grief, and struggle.  Instead of isolating, the loss became connective.  Her son was not brought back to life, but she realized that even in the midst of this devastating reality, she could go on living.

This is how healing happens, how change happens.  In small, human, undefended conversations. Neighbor to neighbor, story meeting story.  Beyond talking points and headlines, into the context of real relationships of trust, care, and compassion bound up by a shared investment in the village that is the shared community, this place where we live, this place where we are all longing to belong.

As Peter Block says, “We change the world one room at a time. This room, today, becomes an example of the future we want to create.  There is no need to wait for the future.  We can create the experience of belonging in the room we are in [right now].”

This is basically sums up why I decided in 2008 to dedicate my life to the local church. Specifically to the local Unitarian Universalist church.

That year, I had the chance to explore a bunch of different churches, all across the country. Churches that were thinking differently about church.  I interviewed their ministers, talked to their founders.  In some cases, I went and visited. These were mostly not UU churches.  They were Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists.  One was a hybrid UCC-Buddhist.   It was all pretty mind-boggling because they were all so unstuck, so free.  So seemingly unbound by tradition or any other old ideas of what “church” is supposed to look like.

For example there was this Presbyterian Church in Louisville that was actually a network of 8 small gatherings that met in houses every Sunday. About 15 in each house. All ages. They’d take turns making dinner and leading each other in spiritual practices and then read the bible and other texts together – their promise was only that they would share in a time that connected them to the holy.  And then each house gathering group decided on one way they would serve as a group in the wider community during the week.  Once a month, all the gatherings came together for a large group worship.

I feel like that was the year I really started to understand congregational polity.  Which is funny because I learned it from the Presbyterians.  But what I realized was that even though technically our churches are totally free to take whatever form they might, we have historically mostly all operated in basically the same ways, with the same basic patterns, regardless of where we are, regardless of our context, the particular patterns of our people in their lives, their particular heartaches, or the stories they might offer if we went knocking on doors and invited the telling.

But I realized, we didn’t need to.  We could instead build communities that are organic, responsive, and deeply embedded in the places where they are – as resources, and partners invested in the common good. by Communities that respond to the longing we all have for belonging – not just in a generic sense, but in a way that is connected to the place where we are.

Today is the first Sunday in our new series NoCo Life, and our goal for this whole series is to dig deep in these localized questions as they connect to our faith, and our church.  To lean into the story of this place – longitude, latitude –  that so many of us love – and to ask what it means to be a church community here, and now? And what are the questions that this place – our home ask of us, and our faith? What are the claims that Northern Colorado place on us, how does it shape us and our lives – and how are we called to shape it?

Because it is a process of weaving our story with a larger story, belonging takes work.  Ongoing work.   Regardless of how long we may have technically lived in a place it is not automatic, or perpetual once you have it. I mean, some transplants will tell me – even though they loved this place since they first visited – it took them 2, 3 or 4 years to feel like it was their home.  Some still feel like visitors after decades.  And at the same time, I’ve talked to folks who’ve been here 50, 60, 70 years, and mostly what they feel today is displaced and disoriented.  So much has changed, and as Lippard says, “one can be homesick without moving away.”

To belong where you are requires a constant openness. A lifelong curiosity for a place and its people as it is now, and as it is always becoming.  To refuse the pull of a romantic nostalgia for a past that likely never was as good as you believe, and equally to avoid an overly-cynical focus on today’s deficiencies and problems, and to instead stay present to what is unfolding here and now.  Right here, right now.

To show up in the room with courage, and humility. Open to all we cannot control. Offering ourselves as we are.  Surrendering to the mystery.  Giving thanks.

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How It Might Have Gone (My Universalist Dream Ballet Version of the Brett Kavanaugh Senate Hearings)

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee

I was imagining all day yesterday how it might have gone.

I keep thinking of it like my Universalist-Dream-Ballet version of the horrifying/captivating Senate Hearings. That is, a version of events fueled by my most idealistic notions of redemption and reconciliation.  And, a version that would obviously include spectacle, ornate costumes and over-the-top musical flourishes, and/or non-linear plot devices – because it’s that disconnected from reality. 

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(Dream Ballet, i.e. something like this…)

Which did not stop me from thinking about it.  

Like most everyone I know, I listened to almost all of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony.  I listened reflexively, out of loyalty more than curiosity.  After all, I’ve been off-book on this script for most of my life.  All the words, and players, how it turns out.  I’ve had it all down at least as far back as that same life stage they were working so hard to recall today.

There are plenty of things I don’t rememember about being a teenager. (And, at least 90% of what I used to remember got swept away in the fog of early motherhood…) Still, there will always be those things I will never forget, even if I try…My first long, slow, increasingly desperate survey of the school cafeteria wondering who to sit with.  Staring down the swimming lane at state finals.  Beating all the boys at the math competition.  Getting the love note from the boy everyone said liked me.  Saying goodbye to my sisters and my parents once they dropped me and all my stuff at the dorms.  And a month or so later, that night in the frat house

The therapist who greeted me the day I realized the memory was not going away agreed with me, it wasn’t rape.  But it was questionable – in the consent arena.  Fuzzy lines made fuzzier by alcohol and the dark rooms of Greek row.  I was 17 when I went to college, still very much a teenager.  A couple years older than Dr. Blasey-Ford, the same age as Judge Kavanaugh. When he held her down, and covered her mouth, and she wondered if she would survive.

I don’t remember everything about it.  Definitely not enough to withstand Lindsey Graham and his temper tantrums.  But enough to know still his name.  His face. His smell.

In my Dream Ballet version of the Hearing, Brett Kavanaugh still doesn’t remember doing it, still isn’t sure.  It isn’t required for reconciliation to begin, I’ve realized.  Because I’ve seen it enough now, the power of denial.  The stories we tell about ourselves, stories that if you topple them, would mean toppling over entirely.  Facts are no match for these stories.   And at 53, he’s been telling himself these stories for decades.  “I went to an all-boys Catholic high school where I was focused on academics and athletics and going to church every Sunday and working on my service projects and friendships.”

These sorts of moments challenge Universalists (and others oriented towards a commitment to compassion and our common humanity).  Because we don’t believe in writing anyone off.  Because we often don’t have a fully formed theology of evil.  Because we do have an over-functioning theology of human goodness.  Not to mention a totally-unscientific faith in human reasoning.  Because we too confuse today’s US court system with anything resembling real reconciliation, or restoration.

A couple weeks ago I offered a service on the Jewish High Holy Days, focusing in on the time between Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – a time known as Teshuvah, or, the turning.  This intervening time represents the work required to get to atonement (at-one-ment), the work that is often left unsaid and untended to – in our courts, and in our lives.  The work that of real reconciliation.

It is a process that requires multiple steps, what I call the 5 R’s:

  1. Recognize yourself in ways you have not been willing to know yourself before.  Recognize the injury.  Study it.  Not from your own life perspective, but from within.  Recognize your role, without excuses or explanations.  Accept responsibility.
  2. Remorse comes naturally after a full recognition.  Remorse is more than regret. Remorse means we know ourselves as the one who has caused another pain.
  3. It’s this real remorse that inspires our Refusal to ever repeat the same mistake again.  Without this commitment, all the other steps are meaningless.
  4. It’s not always possible to Repair the damage that was done, but trying matters too.  Do whatever you can to put the pieces back together.  Repay the money.  Restore the reputation.
  5. And finally, it requires Revelation.  As in, your own out-loud utterance of every other R – outloud to the person you injured, outloud to the surrounding community.  Out loud to God, the universe.  Bring what has been previously hidden and secret into the open so that it can be accountable.

Despite what any of us might wish, time does not automatically do the work of the 5 Rs. Even the time that passes from age 17 to 53.  A law degree does not do it either.  Nor does a successful career as a judge, or a nice house with a beautiful family.  The work requires actual work.  Intention.  Starting with that first move towards recognition.

In my fantasy version of the Hearing, Brett Kavanaugh does not have to topple over.  (Even in a Dream Ballet, we can’t imagine that denial can be undone in one moment.) But even an opening towards the pain Dr. Blasey-Ford is expressing would be a start, a move towards connection, restoration.  Rather than amplifying his own sense of pain, and entitlement.  Channelling anger for what was being done to him.

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Rolling Stone’s photo from the hearing. They captioned it “Angry Kavanaugh.”

A willingness to acknowledge: it is possible that he does not have all the information.  It is possible that his memory is imperfect.  (Dr. Blasey-Ford could teach him a little about the scientific reasons why memory can be deceptive and self-protective.)  Any move towards wholeness would have to begin here.  With an acknowledgment that there are always things out of our view, a humility, and a willingness to see anew.

Imagine how differently things might have gone – if he’d made even the slightest move towards this recognition.  In the courtroom, or even better – in the first hour he learned of her coming forward.  Or even more incredibly, in any of the days between that night at the party, and the day his name was put forward for a lifetime appointment to the highest court of in our (less so every day) justice system.

Imagine. Instead of trying to accept that we are appointing a self-righteous sexual predator to the Supreme Court, today we might even be giving thanks that we’d be appointing someone who knows what real justice looks like. This is the power of this path of real turning, real redemption and restoration.

I know.  It’s a wild fantasy.

But it’s a fantasy we need not abandon for all time.

When we are talking to our kids about the lessons of this Hearing.  About the lessons of the #MeToo movement.  About the sorts of humans that we can and must be for each other.  About consent.  And respect. And love.

We can and must also speak about failure, and regret, and repair.  Because we are not perfect creatures.  None of us.  And because science actually shows we are mostly profoundly irrational, illogical, inconsistent.  Because I want my kids to know not only that if they have something terrible happen to them, they can and should expect this degree of accountability, and repair – but that if they do something terrible, there is a path to repair. Because it remains true that no one is ever outside the possibility of redemption.  And because even when all seems lost, truth continues to be revealed. Even for Judge Kavanaugh.

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the quintessential dream ballet: Oklahoma!

PS.  In case you’re wondering.  I believe her.  But as I said last March in my #MeToo sermon, I’m not sure that “believing” is really the issue.  I’m guessing Lindsey Graham mostly believes too, despite his wild dramatics.  I’m guessing the large majority of the Republican Senators believe her.  The issue isn’t belief.  It’s about whose life and whose suffering matters enough to respond.

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The Morning After

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Reading: After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood by Sharon Olds 

Sermon – The Morning After – Gretchen

Last Sunday, I told you about the ledge at my friends’ lake cabin. How I was too afraid to ever follow them when they’d jump off into the water below. Well, I wasn’t always so cautious.  Actually, a lot of the time, just the opposite.  

For example. I was in about 5th grade at summer camp when I was a little late for the evening campfire circle (I’d been getting something from my cabin and missed the call to line up, but I didn’t want to miss all the fun singing that happened at the beginning.)

My cabin was at the top of a big hill. The campfire was at the very bottom.  There was a trail to get down.  It zigged and zagged to keep the incline a little more manageable, but also made it really long. Suddenly I remembered that some of the older kids often took a less-official trail that cut off the switch backs – instead of a mild incline, it was a steep one, but they all seemed to do fine with it – and they’d arrive in half the time, laughing as they ran out at the the bottom of the trail –  right next to the campfire.  Perfect.

So I made my way down the regular trail until I came to the cut off and then because I was in a really big hurry, I started running down it. But because I was running and the down hill was steep – I picked up too much speed – And unlike those bigger kids, my legs were pretty short. And more easily caught up under my little body. So instead of arriving by the campfire circle laughing,  I arrived flat on my belly, with my legs – from my ankles to my knees covered in blood.

Obviously I did not make the campfire singing that evening.  

Instead I had to walk back up the regular long trail, all the way to the top, in terrible pain, so that I could be cleaned up at the nurse’s station.

I still have scars.

Sometimes when we talk about plunging into the unknown, making that brave and bold leap, and saying yes to the transformative moment for which you can never fully prepare, we forget to talk about what happens after the leap.  

We forget to talk about the broken skin, the broken hearts, the broken vows, or the broken relationships.  

The proverbial morning after.

Not every fear, it turns out, is unfounded.  Even if the intention is good and the leap righteous, there is still always the possibility that something – if not everything – could go terribly wrong, or that there might be significant and unforeseen collateral damage.  

In a traditional religious setting we would call this the reality of sin.  Which is a word and concept that comes for many with all sorts of feelings of guilt, or shame, left over from other religious traditions, or from cultural influence by fundamentalists overly fixated on enforcing their views of ethical sexuality.

This personal or social baggage obscures the original intent of the word, especially from a Jewish perspective. Which was mostly just the idea of missing the mark.

Depending on the circumstances, missing the mark can be no big deal, or a really big deal. Are we talking about a bunch of friends playing darts and hitting the wall instead of the board? Or ar we talking about a heart surgeon making a slightly-off incision?

Both are missing the mark. The specific circumstances, however, make a big difference.

Coming to grips with the circumstances of our mark-missing – facing them fully, and taking responsibility both for their reality, and their impact, is the work of Teshuvahthe days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that Victoria Safford describes in the reading Ali and I offered.

 

Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year is an opening, an invitation; Yom Kippur – the day of atonement is the healing.  

Teshuvah is the bridge between the two.

These two Holy Days represent the bulk of what we usually talk about when it comes to forgiveness and the restoration of relationships. When someone asks to be forgiven, we offer forgiveness. It is our practice, our promise. There is nothing you could do that would place you beyond the reach of courageous, transforming love. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, yet again come.

The invitation, and then healing, the return.

On the other hand, the middle journey of Teshuvah, between the two – which has as its root, the word “shuv,” or “turn” has often been treated as if a given, something automatic and obvious, as if too much attention to the work of repair might indicate a lack of compassion, as if all apologies are equal.  As if a small hole in the wall is the same as a small hole in the heart.

It was not quite a year ago – towards the end of last October – when the news broke about the comedian Louis CK and his pattern of appalling behavior with women.  

It was that time where it felt like every day there was one, or sometimes two, powerful influential men, men that we admire or respect, the “good guys” – that we found out had been for years engaging in inappropriate, manipulative, misogynist and/or abusive behavior.

Louis CK probably fit into all of these.

As the stories came out, he issued an apology,  which at the time I thought of as pretty remarkable. Primarily because he started by saying flat out, “These stories are true.”

It’s a low bar, really, but after a bunch of men’s first response was to deny and attempt to discredit and demean the women who were coming forward – it felt revolutionary that he didn’t go there.  Not only did he acknowledge they were telling the truth, he affirmed their experience, and took responsibility:

From his apology:

“I wielded [my] power irresponsibly. I took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it…There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with. I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

And then, he did.  He stepped back.  He stepped away from multiple tv shows, and a movie, and from comedy more generally.  Or rather, all of these stepped away from him. 

As reported by NPR, “He was dropped by his management company. FX, HBO, Netflix all severed ties with him. He pretty much disappeared.”

That is, until three weeks ago, when he showed up for a stand-up spot in a New York City club, indicating that perhaps 10 months was a long-enough time to “listen.”  

The reaction was mixed, with some focused on the price he had paid already, and others wondering if he had yet listened well enough, or grappled fully with his actions….

After all, his “apology statement” never actually said the words “I’m sorry,” and now here he was just slipping back on to a comedy stage with no mention, no acknowledgment, no words uttered for the journey he had been on, “I’m Sorry” or otherwise, and really, no evidence on that stage that anything had changed, no evidence that he had traveled that intervening journey of Teshuvah, a journey that always begins with a turning inward, a commitment to see what is there, to begin the change there, in the heart. 

This is what we can call the “first R of Teshuvah”: Recognition.  Before we can even think about returning, or restoring – we must recognize ourselves not just as we wish we were, but how we actually are. Not just our intentions, but also our impact. To see our complex motivations, those places we keep hidden from ourselves and others;  the ego, the anger, the grief, the fear – often compounded over many years – all of these things that brought us to miss the mark, to keep missing the mark.

And we must recognize the pain we are responsible for –the brokenness – to know that this too is a part of us and our story – and to set this alongside the other reality which is our wholeness.

Our culture today does not do a lot to help us in this work of recognizing our own wrongdoing.  Instead it teaches us to shift blame, and save face, cultivating practices of defensiveness and passive voice acknowledgements.  As in, not “I missed the mark” but “the mark was missed.”  

Rabbi Alan Taylor describes it this way: “We live in a culture that conditions us to avoid suffering [our own, or others].  We are not in the habit of looking at it, but of distracting ourselves from it.  As we begin the process of Teshuvah, we need to make a conscious effort to overcome the momentum of this denial and avoidance.”

Instead of shifting blame, Teshuvah invites us to acknowledge our responsibility, especially by hearing directly from those we hurt directly, or indirectly – individuals, and communities. We attempt to see things from their perspective, to enter their world, if even a little.

And then, we work to accept that these costs, these injuries were in fact the result of our actions. Regardless of our intent. Regardless of other factors that may have been at play. Our job is to simply recognize, and accept.  

Which is why the next R of Teshuvah is often remorse.  The inner conflict that comes with this real acceptance can be overwhelming.  Remorse is one step further than simple regret, which you can feel pretty readily for all sorts of things that you simply wish went differently. Remorse connects us in a deep understanding of the ways our actions led to another’s pain, and it contains the seeds of real change.  

As Rabbi David Blumenthal describes, Remorse “encompass[es] feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of despair, as well as being alienated from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own inner selves.” 

Genuine remorse is often motivating by way of its misery.  We don’t want to know this alienation from ourselves and others in this same way ever again. And so we resolve to refrain from repeating the same action again in the future.

That’s the third r of Teshuvah – refrain.   To simply not pick back up this same path, to commit to the turning, the change – for real.

Because changing habits is never easy, or readily accomplished in a 10 day period marked by an ancient tradition – but rather require daily commitment over the long haul, this is probably a good moment to remind us that this whole path is best traveled with help.

To find what the Jewish tradition might call a minyan – that is not like the little yellow movie character that your children or grandchildren like to dress up as for Halloween – but rather a group of friends and fellow imperfect people who will pray and struggle and grow with you.  

We call this same thing our covenanted community, that is, our congregation – people who promise to practice together new habits of the heart.   

Refraining from repeating the same action fits nicely along the other major move of Teshuvah, which attempts to heal the actual damage done, as in – restitution.  

Repay the money.  Rebuild the reputation.  Tell the truth.

It is not always possible to make things as they were before the break, but as one Jewish teaching acknowledges, “the work of repair has its own intrinsic purposes, regardless of whether or not the repair can ever be accomplished.  It is the effort, and the resulting change of heart, that matters.”

Which brings us back to Louis CK, and the words he said, and the ones he didn’t, and his attempt to return.

Because the last r of Teshuvah is Revelation as in, an out-loud acknowledgment of all the other pieces –  out loud recognition, out loud remorse, out loud resolve to refrain, and out loud attempt at restitution.  

Everything I have read and learned about this process points to the necessity of the verbal acknowledgement, which moves the internal and the hidden to something external and therefore accountable.

As the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar Maimonides wrote, “We need to make this confession with our lips moving; to say these things out loud that we have resolved in our heart.”  

Nothing indicates that an email or text acknowledgment is enough, by the way.  

Depending on the situation of the mark being missed, the out-loud might be offered to one, or to many, to God, or the universe.  With candles and ritual, or over a table in a coffee shop with hearts pounding and palms sweating.  

However it comes, it must acknowledge and integrate all the parts of Teshuvah. Otherwise it remains provisional, partial, and probably inadequate for real return and restoration.  

In this age of shifting blame and saving face, where apologies are considered amazing just for acknowledging that a thing that happened happened. Where it can feel like so much work to go back up the hill and get stitched up.  I have been wondering lately what it would mean for us to take up this practice in every part of our lives – our families, our friendships, our church, our city, our country. 

To imagine that we are capable, and we are worthy of moments just like the poem from Sharon Olds.  Moments where someone we love who has also hurt us, maybe for a long, long time. To imagine they are capable and we are worthy of them coming to us in real recognition, with real remorse, with a commitment to refrain, and a plan for restitution -saying, I am so sorry.  And there in a flash, the sky splinters, and everything changes.

So much so we wonder what we will do with the rest of our lives.  

We know there are many reasons to forgive even if this work never happen. We have to make do with inadequate apologies all the time.  And we are always free – as Lily Tomlin defines forgiveness – to stop wishing for a different or better past.  

It can be so liberating to just – let go.  

But imagine – if we traveled this path more intentionally more fully this path of turning, and turning, and turning again and then from this place, we offer forgiveness:  To say: It’s all right.  And to mean it.  Because the apology is so real, the forgiveness is too.

And so is the healing, and the wholeness, and the being made new.   

Forgiveness offered from this place is not just liberating, it’s transforming.  And it’s a practice we can and should ask of one another, and ourselves.  Not because we are not compassionate, but because we believe so fully in our equal inherent worth, and our interdependence that we are willing to take seriously our own part in this web and take seriously the work needed for repair, the work that comes before atonement, which is better pronounced at-one-ment.  The work to first acknowledge all the cracks across all of our lives, that we have ourselves made, and then together, letting the light shine through.

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The Plunge

the plunge (1).pngWhen I was a kid, some of my friends had a cabin on a lake, where just off to the side there was a place you could go, and jump off the ledge into the water below.  I’d watched my friends over, and over take this leap.  

They’d countdown – 3, 2, 1, and then run, and be in the air, and then splash.  

Every time, they’d ask me if I’d want to join, and I thought about it.  And every time I thought about it, my stomach would turn in knots, my heart would pound, and I’d catch my breath in my throat.  

It’s not the water that scared me. I grew up in water – I swam competitively – and my grandparents had their own lake cabin, so when I wasn’t in the pool, I was in the lake.  

It was more: the distance between the ledge, and the water.  Which seemed really far. And also, it was the rocks close by, which seemed really sharp.  

Most of all, it was the voice of my grandmother in my head, telling me that this was all very dangerous.

I always thought I might try it, though. Like, there would be clear moment where I felt ready.  But that moment never came.

Life is filled with decisions like this, all the time.  Decisions where we balance risk, and reward; danger, and comfort; the familiar, and the entirely new.  Will we leap into the unknown waters below, or will hang back, and stay the course?

Sometimes, we are completely aware that we’re facing such a big decision – like when we’re considering a new job, or a new love – or when we’re ending a job, or a relationship. But a lot more often, these moments just pass by as a regular part of life. Like, on the playground on a regular day.  Or at the neighborhood block party.

Whether we realize it or not, these choices are everywhere.  These choices and chances to show up as full participants in our own lives, as partners in the work of unleashing courageous love.  As Rabbi Alan Taylor says it, we always “stand at the end of a long chain of consequences…Every day, we are called to the present moment of our lives.  And the time of transformation is always upon us.”

As he says: “The world is always cracking through the shell of its egg to be born.”

Have you ever seen something trying to be born? Or actually given birth? 

For those of you who have given birth, or seen something trying to be born, think about that experience.  The words that come to mind that describe it.  Messy.  Scary. Amazing.  Smelly. Shocking. Risky. Chaotic. 

In the congregation I served before this one, one of our members was a rancher – she bred cows.  One Sunday after service, she told us that right that minute, one of her cows was going to give birth, and she wondered, would we like to go see a baby cow be born?

A group of like 30 children and adults piled in our cars and caravanned up to her ranch. And we came in right at the end of this birth.  It was loud, and kind of gross – like all the words.  And also it was a miracle. The calf was so small, and stinky, and so soon it started to stand on its own, all wobbly. 

A lot of preparation goes into these moments where something’s going to be born. A lot of training and planning, and practicing. A lot of gift registries and baby showers.

So much preparation…which is kind of funny. Because as anyone who has ever been there for an actual birth would tell you – there is no preparation you could do that would ever make you actually prepared for this kind of moment.  

There is only surrender.  Only the giving in to this piercing new claim on your heart. This terror. This beauty.  This miracle.

Which does not mean we stop trying to prepare.  Go to the library and find the section for expectant parents – so many options to prepare.  Which is fine.

But also, the idea that we could be prepared – and now I’m talking about literal moments of birth, and also – the preparation for what is always trying to be born in us, for all that’s trying to come alive in our hearts, the idea that we could ever fully prepare – too often keeps us from believing that we are already capable, already enough.  Keeps us afraid that we’ll look foolish.  Afraid we’ll not be perfect. As if such a thing exists.   

And we start to get this idea that maybe we are the only ones in these moments that feel unprepared, out of sorts, discombobulated.  Everyone else must be at least a little better off than we are.  More able to stop the bullying, or ready to respond to racism.  More prepared to lead the congregation, or envision the future, or run for office, or give that major gift.  More able to hit that note, or find that beat. More prepared to step up to the edge and leap into the life that we long for, the life transformed by courageous love.

So we just stand back.  Waiting for that moment when we feel…ready.  

A lot in this world and in our lives today feels messy, and scary, shocking, and risky. No matter our age. And it can be tempting to believe that everyone else has what it takes – it can be tempting to keep being the one that watches everyone else take the big leaps, to keep putting off that leap.  

But the truth is no one is properly prepared for the real moments of transformation, the life that beckons to us, at every turn.  The feeling of being unprepared, and stomach in knots, breath short –  in these moments – that’s normal, that’s regular. It’s a sign that you’re waking up to see the choices that offer themselves to us, all the time, and showing up for the world that is trying to crack through the shell of its egg to be born.

There is no preparation for life like this, there is only surrender to the piercing claim upon our lives that is the call of courageous love. There is only the willingness to keep leaping into the unknown.  And there is only the hope of a beloved community that will take the journey with us.  That will companion us, forgive us, bless us, and remind us in the terror, and the beauty of it all, in the miracle of this life:  We are not alone.  

3, 2, 1…..let’s go!   

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Unbalance Your Life

One evening, not too terribly long ago – relatively speaking, there were two sisters who were preparing for a very special dinner guest.  He was a powerful teacher, someone who radiated wisdom, and love.  They each prepared for this special guest’s arrival in their own way.

The one sister, Martha, known for her accomplishments and work ethic started by making a thorough to-do list.  Once she understood the scope of the tasks ahead, she got to work.  Cleaning the kitchen and the dining area.  Dusting, sweeping, and mopping.  Doing the grocery shopping. Setting the table.  And then chopping and broiling and heating and stirring.

Since this particular guest made a habit of traveling with at least twelve of his closest friends, it was a big meal to put together, and the timing had to be just right.  It all had to be just right.

Martha’s sister, on the other hand, Mary.  If Mary was known at all, it would have been less for what she did than how she was.   She was often quiet. You may not notice her near you, but for the way she listened, and kept still.  Accordingly, her preparation took an entirely different course than her sister’s.  While Martha cooked, Mary waited.  Just waited.  Hopeful and watchful.  She paid attention.  She breathed deeply.  She smiled more broadly, walked more softly.  She offered thanks. She prayed.  She felt blessed.

Finally, it was time.  The guest – Jesus was his name – arrived, grateful and unassuming.

Martha was first to greet him at the door – always one for good manners.  She brought him in, found a place for him and all of his companions to sit, and then went back to her work.  There still was so much to do.  She was nervous and unsure, wanting Jesus to see her, to appreciate what she had done, to believe she was a good person.  Good enough to serve someone like him, in her home.

She returned to her pots and her hot oven, and kept on working.

Meanwhile, her sister sat at Jesus’ feet, and began to listen as he spoke. Just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing.

Though she tried not to make it obvious, Martha saw all of this.  And she was Not. Happy.  She was irritated in the way that only siblings can get irritated at one another:  primordially, viscerally, irrationally, where one small irritation easily stands in for a lifetime of jealousy or fear, or love.

From this place, Martha stirred her soup around and around, picking up the pace as each thought came to her:

Who does Mary think she is?

Jesus must think she is so rude!

She is such an embarrassment!

And wouldn’t I like to sit there all still and quiet, learning all there is to learn, thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams – wouldn’t that be nice?

But then who would do all this work?

And as she stirred, the words suddenly came out from her, she spoke aloud, into the air:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (Lk 10:40b)

The chatter in the room came to a sudden stop, and was replaced by a giant, awkward, silence.

Jesus had been watching all along, the stirring, the tending, the sighing.  So, it did not take long for him to respond.

“Martha, Martha,“you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Lk 10:41a)

And everyone in the room was like…. What’s the one thing? For real, he never said.   Religious scholars and bible readers have for centuries puzzled over this passage in the 10th chapter in the gospel of Luke, but still no one can say conclusively what Martha does not have, but Mary does.

It also does not say what Jesus planned on eating if everyone followed Mary’s– or his own – example.

It’s a fitting ending, for a story about time, and how we spend our time.

Because how we spend our time always seems to come with a non-specific sense that no matter how we do it, we’re doing it wrong.

Like everyone else has figured out a secret, that way of living that really gets that “one thing.”

I say all of this as someone who has for most of my life, been utterly confused about time.  I don’t really believe that everyone else has entirely figured out time – but I am pretty clear most of you know more of the secret than I do.

Some of my confusion is inheritance.  My mom’s family – she was one of 7 children – they lived next door to the town elementary school, and yet were always the last to arrive.  It was a joke that the teachers and other children made, but my mom and her siblings didn’t really find it funny. It was embarrassing, but also something they felt they weren’t entirely capable of changing.  There were reasons, in her childhood home, for why getting across the playground and in the front door was harder than it might seem.  Some of it was the chaos of seven children born in six years – there were two sets of twins – and some of it was the chaos they in turn inherited from their parents, and their parents, and their parents.

All of this generational chaos adds up to what I sometimes think of as my “time disability.”  Because my inner clock just does not match up to the actual clock – how long I think things take and how long they actually take, how many hours there are for real in a day, how many days in a month – I am literally always shocked at how off I can be.  And I am not young. I should be better at this by now.

I acknowledge that my time challenges are not helped by my innate insatiable ambition to do all the things.  I remember in fourth grade, I was 9 years old, and our school newspaper had an advice column you could write into anonymously. I was so hopeful writing my letter, that the mysterious letter answerer might be able to help me:

My problem is, I can’t choose. I want to do soccer, and piano, and tennis, and swimming, and basketball, and camp fire girls, and also I play guitar in the church choir, and also my family volunteers the second hand store, and I want to make sure I can ride bikes with my sisters, and also have enough time for school work, including all the bonus assignments….my letter went on for many pages.  But at the end, the question was simply: I just don’t know how to fit it all in.  I want to do it all.  But there isn’t enough time.  What do I do?

Time is like money – it is a limited resource. And also like money, the way we spend it tells us what we value most; because we can’t spend it on everything; and there’s no do-overs.  Even at 9 I knew this.

Until the real-life invention of Hermione Granger’s time-turner, we’re all still stuck with a limited number of hours in each day, days in each week, weeks in year, moments in each life.  Which is both the best and worst news that I know of: time is even now, passing.

In seminary, I discovered that some of my confusion around time might be a matter of linguistics – see, modern English has just one word for time.  But the ancient Greeks understood that one word was insufficient, and gave time two words – Chronos, and Kairos.  These two words describe two totally different realities, different experiences of this one things that we today call time.

Chronos refers to the actual clock time –– it’s the sort of time that Martha was anxious about – and Mary clearly was not.  Chronos is the getting the dinner done, and served hot at an already-set table; it’s the stand through 2 stoplights at Prospect because the students are back and the construction isn’t done; and it’s the sitting in the waiting room until the nurse calls your name.

As author Glennon Doyle has written, “Chronos time is …. one minute at a time, it’s staring down the clock till bedtime time, it’s ten excruciating minutes in the Target line time when one kid has swiped a bra from the cart and arranged it over her sweater while sucking on a lollipop undoubtedly found on the ground; while the other is sucking on the pen from the credit card machine WHILE the woman ahead is trying to use it.  Chronos is four screaming minutes in time-out, and, it’s two hours till daddy gets home time. Chronos is the hard, slow passing time [that many of us] actually live in.”

Kairos, however, is time in the larger sense.  It’s time-out-of-time.  It is time as in what mystic Julian of Norwich was present to when she said

“all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  It is the time that some call God’s time.

Glennon Doyle describes Kairos as that same ten minutes in the Target line – but for a moment in the midst of all of that – you “notice the piles of healthy food you’ll feed your children to grow their bodies and minds and you remember that most of the world’s mamas would kill for this opportunity.  This chance to stand in a grocery line with enough money to pay.  And you just stare at your cart, and the abundance, and say thank you.”

Mary was connected to Kairos, entirely, gave herself over to it, but Martha – she was nowhere near.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”

Isn’t it the most irritating comment?  Martha was making him dinner – making his friends dinner – meanwhile her sister was completely unhelpful.

“Worried” and “distracted” seems the least of what she had the right to be.

A lot of the traditional reads on this story cast the two sisters as a dichotomy of life choices – a choice between Mary’s being and Martha’s doing; a choice of contemplation or action; chronos or Kairos.

As you can probably guess, the celebrated path has not trended towards Martha in this dichotomy. Be a Mary, not a Martha, the usual lesson goes.  Even though Martha was getting the job done – and on her own.

Although some feminist readings have tried to rescue Martha over the years, more often the feminist insight has centered on Mary – because she’s a woman not in the kitchen, right? And Jesus was like – follow her.

Martha, on the other hand, has been portrayed as a cautionary tale of over-work, over-worry, and over-functioning.

It’s a good message for today, where busy has become a status symbol, and a way of to demonstrate your value, and your worth. Not just demonstrate it, but prove it.  To others, and just as often, yourself.

When you ask, how are you? So often now you get: busy.

Even though busy is not a feeling word.

Behind the “busy” answer might be all sorts of feelings – from loneliness to fear, to excitement, to exhaustion, even wonder, or boredom, anxiety, or despair.  The only thing we know for sure with busy, is that we don’t know – because who has the time?  Things are too busy.

To address the Martha-esque epidemic of modern life, we are told to work for balance  in work, and life; in activity and in rest; in care for others, and care for ourselves.  The two sides are still a dichotomy – just like the traditional reads of Mary and Martha – except that instead of choosing one or the other as better, we’re invited to straddle across.

To arrange our time as if placing pieces of ourselves on two sides of a scale, measuring and quantifying action…contemplation…work…rest…serving….relaxing…

But life does not actually separate out so easily.  It’s so much more mixed up – less a dichotomy, and more like a paradox.

Because on the one hand, life is about Target lines and lollipops, and dealing with the clogged kitchen sink.   Life is being too hot because you can’t figure out how to turn off the heat, and it is picking up groceries, and, in the middle of everything, the bag breaking.

Life is spilling coffee down your sleeve, buying a hairbrush, hurrying along wobbly bricks –

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.

All these little things, these daily things, these things that fill our hours and our minutes, our seconds.  These are life.

And then at the exact same time, life is not actually about the kitchen sink, or the groceries, or even about coffee.  It isn’t about any of this at all.

Life is about a thread that connects all of these, and all of us in the doing of these things,

And it is about that connection, that pulse,“that yearning.”

Life is even about the not getting anything done at all, about setting aside all the cooking to sit in a circle of friends who have dedicated their lives to love, and trusting that there’s a different sort of hunger being fed.

Life is do-ing, because of be-ing; Life is tending, and tasking, and tracking –because of who we are tending to, and tasking and tracking for, only because always in the next room, the next house, the next city – sits our beloved, and all of our tasks add up to something called healing, and wholeness, transformation, and liberation.

Which is why I vote we give up on the whole idea of balance. Give up charting a life of perfectly equal dosages of being, and then doing, resting and then working – Mary-ing and then Martha-ing.

My spiritual director likes to say, Sabbath is not feast or famine, Gretchen.  She means, just because there’s this one day set aside called “a day off,” doesn’t mean that no resting can happen until that day.  The wholeness of time is available, everywhere, and in everything.  And the invitation and challenge before all of us, in this paradoxical life, is to pull all of these things together, to feel ourselves whole.  To live an integrated life, a life that lived with intention, a life where we show up all the way, in all the parts.

And a life that seeks that connection – even across the pots and the pans and the annoying family members – with the big why, to keep weaving that connection, over, and over, and over, second-by-second; minute-by-minute. I’ve thought sometimes, that maybe that’s the One Thing from the story.

To approach time like this requires setting aside guilt, or judgment about how much time things should take – because if we are connected to the BIG WHY there’s always going to be more to do than there is time.  So we accept what we can do, and show up all the way for that, and let go of the rest.  To accept this moment as it is; this is the task at hand, and to forgive ourselves for the inevitable imperfection.

To remember that the holy is always within our reach.  And so we are invited to surrender into all that we cannot control, and to give thanks – that we have this chance – simply, to be alive.

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