Pass It On – on faith formation & mentorship

Teacher Parker Palmer calls the place where we begin muttering miserable, unrepeatable things at the radio, or at our social media feed – that place that many of us are way too familiar with these days – he calls it the “tragic gap.”

The tragic gap is the distance between “the hard realities around us, and what we know is possible, not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”

A lot of times I think of church as a place where we go to deal with the tragic gap.

We come together to try to gather up the strength and courage to live in the gap – to learn how resist the equally alluring pulls of denial and despair.  We come to stay awake,
in the mix of beauty and brokenness, and to gather up the strength, and the support
to do our part to make the gap just a little smaller.

But sometimes, church itself is the gap. It can be devastating when the distance shows up here in church because we so want this to be the exception.  We so want this – here – us – to have no gap.

But the church is ultimately, still, filled with humans, humans who are sometimes short-sighted, short-tempered, sometimes petty, often self-centered – humans.  And so there will be sometimes, a gap. Sometimes a big one.

I knew all of this the Sunday I was driving home from a long weekend of ministry –
it was my first solo ministry, but not my first experience in church. Church had broken my heart a few times before that – but this was my first time as a minister.

I was serving a congregation three hours from my home, so I would go and stay for three or four days at a time – we’d pack all the meetings and pastoral visits and classes and leadership training – oh, plus worship – all into just a few days. And then I’d go home, and come back two weeks later, and do it again.

On this particular trip, it was maybe 12 months into my time with them, so maybe they were trusting me more – but I heard more stories of grief, and anger than I had before.  It was overwhelming.  But, I could’ve handled that. What it did it, was the way all these folks, my beloved church members, were treating each other, and sometimes me – terribly –  passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive.

I had so much I wanted to offer, I was in my first year of ministry – I was bursting with ideas – and they just seemed so – afraid. Resistant.  The sacrifices my family was making so I could do this (my kids were young, and I was often away) – I wondered why. How does anyone, why does anyone do this – for whole lives. How could I do it – without becoming just sad, and cynical – without ending up muttering miserable unrepeatable things – all the time. I cried off and on the whole three hour drive home.

As I got closer to town, I realized I couldn’t actually go home yet. I needed instead, to make a phone call.

They were marked in my favorites, so it just took one button.

Hello? The Rev. Nancy Bowen answered, but it could’ve been as easily her husband, the Rev. Howell Lind.

Can I come over? I asked.

Howell was the interim minister here at Foothills from 2015-16, so some of you know him. And Nancy served as the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association for a little over a decade before she retired in 2016, so you may also know her.

Howell’s been a Unitarian Universalist minister for going on fifty years. And Nancy has been a minister for half that, but active as a lay leader for the whole of her life.

More importantly, for more than a decade now, they have been my teachers, my friends, and my mentors – and in that moment – I was absolutely clear that I had to see them.

We sat in their living room, there may have been scotch.  I didn’t tell them much about what had happened, it wasn’t necessary.  I only asked them, with all sincerity and earnestness – how they had kept going?  For all these years – surely they’d seen way worse than my few little days, felt way worse – but from what I could tell, they were only occasionally overly cynical or sad or, only occasionally muttered miserable unrepeatable things. So, what gave them the courage, I wondered, and the strength – what allowed them to keep alive that bright thread of hope?

Without hesitation, they both said – you.

By which they did not actually mean me. Not precisely. More, people like me, relationships like ours. Being able to mentor and support new ministers, they said – and to see the ways that these new ministers would – with their own passion and creativity,
become leaders themselves. It wasn’t just for the mentees benefit – it turned out – it was the thing that kept the fire alive in them.

They recalled a recent time when they were listening to new ministers preaching on evil. They said after hearing that, they realized, even now, we can keep going. Everything is ok. Which is funny – I know – evil – but they said they could see there that our story was in good hands – the fire, the light – it’s still going.

They told me then about their own mentors, the women and men who had asked more of them than they thought possible – who pushed them and challenged them – showed up for them, and invited them to truly join in. And to whom they felt responsible, for passing it on.

As they were talking, I understood suddenly exactly what it is we mean when we say that Unitarian Universalism is a Living Tradition.

We usually talk about it as if it is about knowledge – about truth continuing to be revealed – like truth is the living thing.

But in that moment I realized, actually, the fact that ours faith a Living Tradition means that our faith has been created, and recreated, sustained and supported not through some apostolic line passing down orthodoxy, nor through the policing of well-practiced rituals, but instead, this – all of this – this bright thread of hope that we sustain here,
that we embody here – has been made possible, and keeps being possible, by way of a great network of care – people who care about each other – a tender willingness of human beings, regular and flawed though we may be – receiving the blessing,
and then offering that same blessing to others – stoking the fire with their life, and passing it on.

In the fall of 2016, a small group of lay leaders, plus Eleanor VanDeusen our Director of Faith Formation – and Sean and I attended a workshop on the future of faith formation –
and, if that phrase doesn’t make sense to you, try out instead – “the future of how we’ll help people connect to, and even, feel responsible for the bright thread of hope.” (For short hand I’m going to say, “the future of faith formation,” but in your head you can say that.)

The workshop gave us many good insights that we’ve been working to implement, but the major take-away about faith formation still challenges me – because it’s pretty-radically different than how we’ve traditionally thought about our programs and the whole set-up of our congregation.

It turns out, that what truly forms people in faith – what makes people literally
change their lives because they feel so responsible for stoking the fire of hope –
has absolutely nothing to do with offering great classes, or reading the right books. It doesn’t even have that much to do with really good sermons, or beautiful music,
or with helping people serve – no matter how meaningful any of this might be.

These are all often good entry points. They can get people started, and stir things up, and bring comfort and challenge along the way.

But the real way that the story of hope remains alive – in any of us, and in a way that keeps it alive in the world – is exactly what I realized that day in Nancy and Howell’s living room. It happens because someone who already feels responsible for this (()) for this story, this faith forms a real relationship with someone who doesn’t yet, and then invests in them, and invites them to join in.  It happens through friends, that become mentors, that become partners – partners who pass it on.

Mentorship is an ancient practice – the word mentor itself is inspired by the character “Mentor” in Homer’s Odyssey, because – as I’m sure you’ll all remember, in the story, the goddess Athena takes on the appearance of Mentor in order to guide Telemachus in a time of difficulty.

Despite these ancient roots, the concept of mentorship only recently became a thing society talked about. Before the 1970s, most people hadn’t really heard or thought about mentoring – but by the 90s, finding a mentor was considered a critical part of the career-building process.

With that said, any mentorship that’s primarily serving a utilitarian purpose is not exactly mentorship – because mentoring isn’t about gaining access, or information, or even about skills – although those things may be a by-product.  Mentorship is about relationship – a relationship of accountability, and most of all a relationship grounded in love.

Mentorship is an investment in another’s personhood, and potential – so much so that there is always the hope that the mentee will move the story forward in ways the mentor couldn’t.  It is a relationship of mutual learning, and a process of exploration and discovery – passing the blessing on, and then receiving it right back – again, and again.

Sitting in the faith formation workshop together, the group of us started to wonder,
what would it mean if every elder in the church started to think of themselves as a mentor.  And by elder I don’t mean older aged – we have some youth I’d call elders, and some of you 80somethings are indeed novices.

Unlike last week when Sean surveyed about introverts – I’m not going to ask who among you thinks of themselves as elders – because I already know, not enough hands would go up.  So I’m just going to let you know up front, you’re wrong. Many of you are elders.
Many of you have things to teach, and to pass on. Most of you.

So we were sitting there with this vision, of how transformational it would be, if every person who was an elder – every person who had a sense of responsibility for this congregation, and faith –  a sense of commitment to this story of hope,
and our mission – if all of these folks were charged not with simply continuing their (your) discrete responsibilities within the church –  or even charged with finding someone who they could train on those discrete responsibilities – which is basically the bulk of our mentorship thus far – we ask people who’ve done a job for a while to find someone else and teach them how to do that job.

But instead, we started to imagine that these elders (you) were charged with creating the kinds of relationships with others – newer folks – where they would be inviting and challenging them – discovering and exploring with them – their emerging commitment to this story, this hope, and listening for what new story we might create together.  Because this is the way that this equally true story – of the ways people have lived and given their lives for love – keeps going.

So that all of us, as we receive this blessing, also simultaneously, start to feel an expectation, a responsibility – to pass it on.

In turn, we imagined that as folks arrive here seeking a sense of belonging, and meaning
we would help them find not only the program, or class they might like, or the service they can plug into – but more, the people they need to meet. The people who who might become the companions who will invest in their personhood, their becoming, who will, before too long, invite them to share in leadership.

The authors of the book Growing Young, call this vision of ongoing mentorship-based faith formation, “keychain leadership.” Because it advocates handing over the “keys” to the next generation of leaders – but not as in, empowerment by way of abandonment – like, here you go, good luck! But more, by way of accompaniment, and “walking alongside those who are just beginning, [sharing the lessons that have shaped us], even while we hand over access, influence, and responsibility.”

There is something counter-intuitive at the heart of this mentorship-based/key-chain leadership paradigm of faith formation – especially today in our overly-busy world. We don’t want to ask too much of anyone, or else we might scare them away. We try to make participation easy, simple, afraid that otherwise it will become just one more thing on the too-full-to-do-list. But what we are learning is that when we ground the invitation in relationship – place it in the context of ongoing support and care, and that investment in personhood – and in the bigger mission – the story of hope, the unleashing of courageous love – then people are eager to join in, and to be a part, and to pass it on.

I had the chance to spend some time with Victoria Safford last February – the author of our reading today she is the minister of a congregation a little bigger than ours, outside the twin cities, and I wish I could say she was one of my mentors. I have admired her ministry for some time.

Which is why I was surprised, when I finally got to talk to her in person, that when I asked her about her church, and what was on her mind – imagining she might have something inspirational to offer, a little gem – she said one word: vigilance.

Not compassion, or love, or justice – but vigilance.

We must be vigilant, she said. Our story is always at risk. Our bright thread of hope is always at risk.  We can’t take it for granted.

On a week like this, when the gap feels – so big – I know exactly what she means.

We need more partners – more partners who are more invested, more deeply,
more keepers of the story, more tenders of the flame, and more who know themselves as responsible to keep watch – to remain vigilant for hope.  So that together we might keep stoking this story of courageous love with our lives, and passing it on.

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Say Yes – Stewardship and Celebration Sunday Feb 4 2018

We are here today because many people  over many generations said yes.

We could go back further, but I want to start with the yes that came 120 years ago, almost exactly – January 2nd, 1898.

A small group of professors and administrators connected to this place – this school–or its 1898 version, a college for farmers and ranchers –finally said yes to an invitation they’d been pondering. You might call it a challenge.

The Rev. Anna Jane Norris had been traveling from Longmont to Fort Collins, back and forth, trying to stir up enough energy from the hundreds who had been coming to hear her preach – trying to see if she could get a willing YES/AND – she had a vision for a Unitarian church in northern Colorado.

If it sounds radical that it was a female minister in the 19th century doing all this preaching – it was.

She was a part of a whole group of women that we can thank for their yes.  Their yes brought liberal religion west.  Because the men were like – Go west? Nope.   But that’s another story.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like to arrive here at that time and try to start a Unitarian church, and as a female?

But Rev Anna Jane, she was committed to her YES, AND…and she was giving it her all  preaching regularly the good news of liberal religion from Longmont to Fort Collins, Fort Collins to Longmont – and finally, on January 2nd, 1898, the nascent congregation in nascent Fort Collins said YES.

There is still no Unitarian congregation in Longmont, by the way – they’re still thinking about it.

I’d like to see their faces, that group of Unitarians who gathered on January 2nd and signed their charter to develop a church of humanity, progressive in spirit – I’d like to see their faces, if they could see us now here today.

((()))).

But that’s how it always is.  We never really know what we are saying yes to – all the worlds that our yes will open up.  The way the story will change.  You saw it in your tables just now. This is the power of yes/and….

Be honest now.

How many of you, when you realized that you weren’t going to just watch improv, but actually join in – were like – YES.  Alright!

And how many thought.  Nope.  Or even, no freaking way.

Right.

Because you know, yes is dangerous. Yes takes on a life of its own – especially once you add your AND to the yes – it goes on to be so much bigger than you.  Or at least, this is the hope.

When I was in college, my friends and I had a dream of creating a theatre troupe we wanted to call the YES company, because we wanted to surround ourselves with people whose first instinct was yes. Not just yes, but yes – and.  The people who will receive whatever is thrown at them with open arms and then give back something even better.

Although I was working in the theatre, I didn’t think of this as a theatre thing, but more a life thing. Yes people are fun, interesting – they make life more fun, interesting, joy-filled.  I liked who I was with yes people – it made me more of a yes person.  My natural inclination towards over-seriousness gave way to more playfulness, daring, and open-heartedness.

Yes people create a space where creativity can happen – crazy creativity, wild ridiculous ideas – bad ideas, all of these are safe in a community of yes – which is vital because in order to succeed, you gotta fail a lot, first – at least, as long as the failure includes learning and changing – yes, and.

This whole last year however, I started to understand the instinct.  Not for yes, but for no.  And even, no way.  It started last January when a lot of the days, I wanted to hide my head under the covers and refuse to see the world, as it actually was. That’s what saying yes means, to start – it’s accepting reality as it actually is.

Not agreeing with it, necessarily, just receiving it. Letting it in.

And then from there, responding with a positive contribution to make it better.

We’ve been talking the last few Sundays about Showing up, today we begin a new series called Join In – show up, say yes – but don’t stop there – Join in – add something, add yourself. Yes/And.

I was predisposed to no, I admit – coming into last year. Like many of you I’m guessing, I just could not accept this President would be our President, not after all he’d said about women, immigrants, people of color, not given his ignorance, his climate-change-denial, his arrogance – Just, no.

There’s a lot of energy in “no,” or at least there is initially.  A common enemy has given rise to many powerful moments in history, and creates fast friendships –but the energy doesn’t last.  You can’t make a life only by un-doing.   Life asks us to be builders. Creators. Life asks us to find our yes.

Now, don’t mishear me, I’m not talking about what I call a Holy No. And by the way, all you kids out there, that’s the kind of no that your parents are saying, whenever they say no.  Parental no’s are always holy nos.  I just realized my kids were gonna be in the room so I wanted to be clear.

But really, a Holy no is driven by an underlying YES –a connection to a positive vision and value.  The holy no is about boundaries, and most of us could use more Holy No’s in our life. But that’s not this.  The no I’m talking about is about fear, self-protection, defensiveness – denial, or sadness, or – maybe, just getting by.

Either way, this sort of no is not living, not all the way.   This no helps you survive. But only yes allows you to thrive.

Anyone here a Gray’s Anatomy fan, or maybe Scandal fans, or….How to Get Away With Murder? I love all of these TV shows – they are the brainchild of writer and producer, Shonda Rhimes. Her brilliance is mind-boggling; her passion and creativity are endless. Or at least, they were until a couple years ago when she went through her own period of No.

Nothing was fun, it was just – routine, a machine – just getting by.

But then, one day, her toddler caught her on the way out the door and asked, Do you want to play with me, mommy?

Shonda is a very busy woman and doesn’t often stop and play, but in that time when her whole life felt like No – she decided to say yes to her daughter.

And they played.   They “improv’d” like kids often improv.  Yes/and comes naturally for most kids.

Playing with her daughter, she could feel her inner no becoming yes.  An active yes, an alive yes, a choice to try something she didn’t expect, a yes that pulled her towards something bigger.

After that she decided to spend a whole year saying yes to all the unexpected things –The things that scared her, the things that pulled her out of her routine, her comfort zone.  She realized she wanted to live her life like she was worthy of yes. Because she realized she didn’t before – she didn’t believe she was worthy of a life that bold, that brave, that uncontrolled, unpredictable – a life filled with that much life.

There are a thousand reasons today to be pre-disposed to no. A thousand reasons to resist and hold back, to hide under the covers. Life is scary, and more than anything, this last year has affirmed how often, regardless of our all-out effort, our desire and good intent – it doesn’t go as planned, how there are no guarantees, about any of it.

But refusing reality does not actually change it.  It just keeps us out of the scene.

And so like Shonda Rhimes’ toddler, I am here to ask, do you want to play?

The world needs us –all of us – more than it ever has before – all of us who are these 120 years later, still committed to the church of humanity – progressive in spirit – we need all of us, to release ourselves from whatever story is keeping us from joining all the way in, whatever fear, or feeling that we may not be worthy of a yes –whatever story we have.

Because it’s going to take all of us, taking the full leap into this scene, this life and giving of ourselves, knowing that we will not live to see the way it all turns out, because this yes is the work of our whole lives.  It is a yes for the version of this gathering in 2138 – to make the way for their dreams, their vision, their courageous love.

In a few moments, we’re going to ask everyone here to consider making a financial commitment for the coming year.  For some of you, this is nothing new, you’ve been saying yes to this ask for 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years.  Thank you.  We are here because of your yes.

For others of you, maybe this is new.  Maybe you’re even a little uncomfortable, and you’re pretty sure that your phone is ringing and you need step out to take it.  But before that….

I want to invite everyone here to imagine that this financial commitment is one major way for you to express your yes/and.  Your way of saying I’m in -for this vision, for this scene that we’re playing out here at Foothills – this story of unleashing courageous love.

There’s no minimum – and I can’t underscore this enough.  Like Nathan said last week – get in where you fit in.  This past year we’ve had pledges at $2/month, and it all counts.  And we’ve had pledges at $20,000 a year.  It all counts.

By the way, there’s no maximum either.

We are here because people just like us were offered an invitation, you could say, a challenge, and said yes, without guarantee.  Over and over, across generations.

We are yes people – Yes/and people.

Let’s play.

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Letting go for the Long Haul – New Year’s Eve 2017

I need to start with a confession:  I’m not sure I’ve ever been more ready for the change to a new year.  I know it’s arbitrary, this one day.  I know, I say every Sunday – each day is a new beginning, as is each moment. I still believe that.

But this year, this marker of time – one year to the next – it feels like it matters more than usual – I feel this collective need to let go, to start again,  and to set ourselves and our lives on a new course.

2017 has been a hard year, for many of us. Therapists and counselors talk about a meaningful increase in people needing extra support for anxiety or depression, and for struggles in their marriages, and as parents. The New York Times recently reported
there has also been a meaningful spike in anxiety in teenagers and in pre-teens.

It’s not easy to be a person of any age these days – and there’s no one precise reason.
Personal stories of struggle, change, and loss, are mixed together with all the social reasons – a less stable government and country – especially for those of us on the margins, along with the high incidents of natural disasters across the globe – paired with a lack of political will to deal with climate change or the insights of science – at all, and all this combined with a growing loss of trust in our neighbors, and an increasing sense of isolation, and loneliness.

We live in challenging times.

Being a leader in this church over the last 12 months has allowed me often to witness much of this up close and personal.  In conversations and emails and texts with many of you, and in our work for economic, immigration and racial justice. The stories of struggle and also strength have been piling up in my heart, and in our collective hearts as we try to stay awake to all that life asks of us.

Much of the year has been intense – and sometimes that has been – so beautiful. Because it has been a challenging year, but I would also say, it’s been one of the most impactful and vibrant years this church has ever known.

From voting to be a sanctuary congregation and companioning Ingrid, to delving more deeply into our spiritual growth in small groups and classes and in our worship together – to committing to each other and our mission in new and bigger ways, this year we learned that courageous love often requires a capacity to live with a certain degree of pain, and grief, while also remaining open to grace.

It has been sometimes harder than I think we would’ve anticipated, but also we have been for each other in big and small ways, signs of hope, and encouragement – and that is the part that is beautiful, and inspiring.

A couple weeks ago, I heard an interview with Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine.
She was talking about the #metoo movement – the movement bringing to light the stories of misconduct, harassment and assault that have been too long protected in silence and secrecy.

The interviewer asked her about where this cultural “moment” would go next, and what it would really mean, and Traister responded by saying that it would mean nothing if it was really only a moment. She said, “anyone interested in making sure that this conversation help[s] transform the power structures and dismantles the injustices should be aware that they’re signing up for a project that’s going to last their entire lives. I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “This is a long haul.”

Traister’s words have stuck with me because I think they could be said about so much of what has happened this year – in our church, in our country, in this world.  So much of what’s been revealed cannot be fixed by way of a better new year’s resolution, or even by a transformational mid-term election, and not even with an election of a new President.

We are living in long haul times, and this work – whatever work of courageous love is calling to each of us, and our shared work – this work is going to last our whole lives.
And so my question lately has been about how we’ll sustain ourselves and one another through this long haul.

I know that many of you are hikers – my family and I love hiking, too. This past summer my son and I did some longer trips, but not too long – he’s only 9 – so we haven’t yet gotten more than 8 or so miles. But I bring this up because I’ve realized that the pack you can easily carry at 3 or 4 miles becomes a lot harder at mile 8 or 9, especially if some of those miles are at higher elevations, or require a scramble.

Which is particularly challenging because actually when you’re hiking longer, you need a lot more stuff – you need more water and snacks and more gear for weather.

Which means, the longer the journey, the more thoughtful you need to be about what you take with you, and even more, what you leave behind.

As we mark this one year passing into the next, we have a great opportunity to consider this question of how we will sustain ourselves for this work work that will last our whole lives.

We have this chance to consider with intention what we will need to sustain this path – a path that will surely involve at least a few scrambles – that already has – and most importantly what we should leave behind and let go if we’re going to maintain the
strength, endurance, agility, and balance to keep going, even when the terrain is rough and the road feels endless.

The idea of letting go can sound simple. But as the monk in our story reminds us, a lot of times we can end up carrying stuff that we never even wanted to pick up in the first place. Stories and worries and regrets that accumulate, and tire us, so that even if we are still able to make the journey, it’s with less joy than it could’ve been, as our packs are too heavy, and there’s not enough room for the stuff that we actually need.

So let us take this chance to reflect on this past year. Consider what we need to leave behind today on the brink of this new year.  What we need to let go of.

What parts of your life – what story, or experience, feeling or worry – or what habits, or ideas are weighing you down and keeping you from living the life that you long for? What is taking up space in your pack for the long haul that would be better reserved for something you truly need?  Now’s the time, let it go.  And let’s keep going, one step at a time.

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For Memory

Reading: For Memory by Adrienne Rich

Sermon, “For Memory”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Over the Thanksgiving holiday, two of my longest dearest friends came to visit with their new soon-to-be adopted 8-year-old son. We all met as undergrads, and even though in the last 20 years we haven’t lived in the same place, through a combination of letters and texts and calls, and a good number of cross-country trips, we’ve managed to remain close.

Whenever we get together, there’s always a pull to share some memory or another – it was such a formative time filled with BIG LIFE EVENTS.  But something about this visit made our memories feel especially tender, and alive.  Maybe it’s what it means to be forty-something together now, to find ourselves all with children, in the middle of life, career, marriage.

More than usual, it was as if we were trying to piece together how one choice led to the next; and then how these seemingly scattered moments turned into a whole life – bringing us here, now.And seeing in each other, still these years and years of history, the tragedies and the triumphs, that only we knowthe boring…. the truly embarrassing.

There are not that many people outside of family who have this stretched-out  understanding about any of us, and the ways that our lives could’ve gone – if only….

I found myself this trip especially trying to remember how we’d ended up as friends. Remind me, I said one evening over a competitive card game of Hand and Foot,when did you go from this random person I saw in class once a week, to this person I could not imagine not seeing every day? How did it happen?

It’s not that I don’t have my own memories, or that we hadn’t talked about all this a thousand times before.  But over this past year, beyond just the tendencies of my life stage, and age I’ve learned to be more skeptical of some of my most basic assumptions.  I’ve realized that doubt and curiosity, can be a healthy thing when it comes to some of my longstanding stories about how life “IS.” So I just needed to check in, to re-encounter these formative tales of friendship, and becoming and growing up.

This time of year, many of us find ourselves remembering and retelling old tales, or at least trying to recall these memories of ourselves and how our lives have played out – especially as we meet up with those others who call these stories, or a version of them, their stories, too.  And more especially, as we remember those who have died who were a part of these stories, feeling anew their absence, no longer remembering it all, with us.

The holidays can be especially hard for those of us who have lost loved ones, or who have strained relationships – for exactly this reason. It is a time pregnant with memories, so much so biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann would caution us to beware of the potential for “over-remembering,” by which he would mean, be careful not to be pulled by the past so much that we cannot experience the present, or allow ourselves to feel the possible, emerging future.  As the White Queen says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Despite his warning not to overdo it, Brueggemann’s scholarship comes down strongly on the importance of memory as a moral and spiritual tool.

You can see this orientation in the quote on the front of the order of service. “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.”   This quote is what inspired this service, actually… I kept thinking about it.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the past yearcontemplating what produces hopeand how to ward off despair,but I confess, I hadn’t thought of a connection to memory.

Memory is an extremely complicated concept, despite its omnipresence not just in the holidays, but daily, weekly, and generationally. Memories tell us who we are, and in most cases, we believe them.  Which is interesting since the more we learn about memory, the less reliable source we realize it often is.  I won’t go so far as to call memory “fake news,” but…almost.

To explain, I’m going to ask you to try out this exercise with me.  I’m going to read a series of words.  Your job for now is just to listen.

Sour nice Candy Honey sugar Soda Bitter chocolate Good Heart taste Cake Tooth tart Pie

So now, I want you to grab a pen, and jot down as many of the words that you can remember from what I just read.  If you don’t have pen, raise your hand, we can pass some around.

I have one more list I’m going to read.  Put your pens down.  Just listen.
Mad wrath Fear Happy hate Fight Rage hatred Temper Mean fury Calm Ire emotion Enrage

Ok once more, write down the words you remember me saying.

Now, let’s go back to the first one. Look over the words you wrote, and see if the word “sweet” is among them.  If you wrote the word “sweet,” will you raise your hand? And then for the second list, look over your words you wrote.  If you wrote the word “anger,” will you raise your hand?

All of you are in really good company. 80% of people who do this pick out sweet, and angry as words they remember.  By this I mean, you are in really good wrong company.Because….of all those words I read, none of them were sweet, or angry.

This is one of many fascinating things about memory.  It works by association.  You don’t necessarily remember facts, you remember the feelings and ideas associated with facts.

This is what researchers Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy describe as the difference between story-truth, and happening-truth. “Happening-truth is the bare facts, what happened at such and such a time.  Story-truth is the story you tell yourself about that truth, the details you fill in, the version that helps you make sense of the world.”

Memories include both of these – the things we heard and observed and felt, and also things we hear later, as well as suggestions from others, and they are filtered through our existing stories, the ways we understand ourselves and life.  Over time, all this becomes integrated so that we really can’t tell which part is which, it’s all just one seamless memory.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus says that people are often really disturbed by this idea, because we feel “attached to our remembered past, and the people, places, and events we enshrine in memory” translate in our minds into our actual real selves, our real lives. But if we can’t trust our memories as real, then we wonder if we can really know who we are, or what’s real, at all.

As I started to learn this about memory, though at first I too was feeling pretty disturbed, I realized quickly that this might be really helpful and good news for my cousin Michelle.  Michelle is just a little older than I am, and is an accomplished pediatrician and advocate for children who’ve experienced abuse. She’s an awesome mom, wife, and friend.  And, Michelle has early onset Alzheimer’s.

Since her diagnosis, Michelle has been incredibly public about her journey, which means that even though she lives far away, when I saw her a couple of months ago for a family reunion, I wasn’t completely surprised that she sometimes forgot words, or where we were in a conversation, and sometimes I realized, for a moment or more, she forgot me.

By the time I next see her, I know, she will have forgotten a lot more.

So many of us today love someone who lives with dementia. Or we have it ourselves. Dementia can create in us a painful spiritual crisis.  Or at least it can if we imagine that we are our memories, and our memories are us – from this perspective, dementia makes us wonder if there is some point in the forgetting when a person is no longer a person. Because as the memories dissolve, we wonderif the self dissolves, as well.   But, in this new understanding of memory – we realize that we have had this all backwards.

Our memories do not represent a set series of fixed events that when stacked back to back add up to us.  Even in a brain without Alzheimer’s or other dementia, memories are malleable, and constantly under construction – subject perpetually to what Loftus calls post-event-information – so much so that with the right combination of factors, any of us can be completely certain of a memory that never actually happened; and completely forget one that did.

If anything, instead of our lives being the sum of all our memories, our memories are the sum of us at any given time – changing and becoming as we change and become – so that as William Faulkner said it, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

While in many ways this understanding of how our memories work runs counter to our common assumptions,at the same time, I don’t think it’s new news to realize that our individual and collective memories can be unreliable sources for truth.  We are all susceptible to what Brueggemann calls selective remembering, or selective forgetting –
whether due to our desire to see ourselves a certain way, or to avoid the pain of a past event, or even just because we were distracted and not paying full attention – or a thousand other possible reasons – we all at times consciously or subconsciously forget portions of our past.

As an example.  About a year ago, Sean and I started talking about the possibility of this congregation ordaining him.  We had just finished my installation ceremony, which we knew marked the first new senior ministry for Foothills in a quarter century. We wondered if the last ordination had been any more recent. We asked around, searched the church history, and eventually we found our story.

In 1991, Foothills ordained the Rev. Thomas Perchlik, who coincidentally was last summer called to serve the UU congregation in Olympia Washington where my sister is a member.

Thomas confirmed our understanding with good memories and appreciation, and we all marveled that yet again we’d be marking something in this congregation that was 25 years in the making.

We shared this story frequently as we got closer to Sean’s ordination.  And many who have been members since ’91, or earlier, remembered Rev. Perchlik fondly, and shared our excitement that we’d celebrate this historic first ordination by Foothills in 26 years.
The story, and our collective memory would’ve all remained just this, maybe forever, if wasn’t for a Facebook post about a colleague’s death shared a couple months ago.  It was a remembrance of the Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, who was, according to the post, a complicated figure, but one who had done important ministry, especially in his service to the UU Congregation in Laramie at the time of Matthew Shepherd’s death.

The writer remarked that this was noteworthy because it was early in Rev. Johnson’s ministry – he’d been ordained just a few months earlier at the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins. This was 1998.  As in, seven years after what we had thought was the “last” ordination.Now, I know that the ordination of ministers is not everyone’s big news, so it’s not that strange that hardly anyone would remember or correct our big pronouncement of the first ordination in a quarter century.  But the fact that no one remembered, or brought it up – it was – funny.

I challenged the person who posted the story, thinking he must be misremembering.  But then a few other colleagues jumped in and said they’d been at the ordination, definitely at Foothills.  I asked if maybe Laramie was doing the ordaining, and we just hosted it, but the ministers in attendance said no.  Foothills ordained him, because he’d done his internship here.  Marc Salkin preached the sermon.  It definitely happened.  Now, from what I can tell from our database, over 150 of you who are active today were around at the time.  But for some reason, as a church, we just, forgot.

…..Here’s my theory.  Here’s what I know about 1998 in this church.  It was right after a major church conflict, a conflict that people still describe to me as incredibly painful. I’m told about 100 members left the church.

My theory is, the story we retained about that time in the church, it isn’t a happy celebration of ordaining a new minister sort of story. It’s a story of struggle, and conflict, and pain.  And this story-truth over time, overcame the happening-truth.

There are probably other factors, but that’s my theory.

Like I said, this happens all the time in our collective memories, and individual lives, this process of selection and curation.

But, as my spiritual director reminds me often, those things in ourselves that are unknown to us are also the things that control us. The things that are unknown to us, in us, control us.

And just as importantly, selective remembering prevents us from knowing the fullness of who we have been, and therefore who we might still be.

For example, our selective remembering keeps us focused on the story-truth that in 1998 we experienced a big conflict, but the fuller truth is that it was also a time when we claimed the unique power of congregations to ordain a new minister – one whose ministry immediately made a big difference in Laramie.

It is only in the bringing to consciousness, the surfacing and the revising of the fuller memories which is possible only in community  (because like truth, we all have a piece…)only through story, and song, rituals and prayer – where we intentionally re-member ourselves that we can claim a fuller freedom and the capacity to choose more intentionally the story we will live from.

And  here I think is where memory produces hope.  When we can hold it all listening and learning the threads that we have too-often neglected, or failed to fully know as our own In this we realize how resilient we can be what lives in us already what lessons we have learned from all these failures these triumphs we feel ourselves a part of this great arc of life that marches on that through it all marches on…As the poem goes: Freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering.  Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.

In these next few weeks, as we encounter once again the ancient stories of Christmas, and Hanukkah, as we sing familiar carols, and share in the familiar holiday rituals we will inevitably feel the waves come in-and-out the waves of memories both bitter, and sweet.

As we do, we have the chance once again to re-member ourselves whole, holy, a part of this past that is still unfolding, still becoming a chance to claim for us all a resilient hope for the future that we can still create, by memory.

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Growing in Generosity

unnamedStory “The Gift” 

Sermon “Growing in Generosity” 

In her book, Packing for Mars, Mary Roach shares that in the very first space station,
the engineers realized they wouldn’t need tables.  Because, no gravity meant you couldn’t sit down, and the food and the plates would be floating everywhere; it would just be – a mess.  So, they decided, no tables.

But then, after the first mission, the astronauts came back and told them it was a complete mistake. It had been awful without tables, regardless of the whole gravity situation.  They didn’t like not being able to eat and gather as a group.  Put straps on the them, but don’t skip them. Without tables, they just didn’t feel fully human.

This is why I love Thanksgiving.  It’s a whole holiday, where the main practice is all about sitting at tables, and eating.  Eating and being grateful, and being with people you love, sharing freely, and…eating, and giving thanks.

There’s a bunch of readings, as we get closer to Christmas, about how much Christmas is needed in the world – I’ve preached on them. They talk about how we need hope in a struggling world, the light of a distant star….you’ve heard them…. “Come Christmas!”

These are all good, but this year, I’ve been thinking how much we really need Thanksgiving.

Because this year, it feels to me like everyone everywhere is in a bad mood. Like, the whole world has gone to a special place my family growing up used to call “crank city.”
People are unusually short-tempered, as if everyone is in that place where the next thing that goes wrong will be the “last straw” and they’ll really lose it.

It’s unusual to experience this in Fort Collins, our happy town, but I think it has something to do with our growth. The rising cost of living, the packed roads, the disappearing open space, and the ways that so many long time residents are retiring in Loveland, or Windsor. It’s not that far away, but still there’s this cumulative grief, and disorientation. Things are changing.

Maybe even more, I’ve been feeling the impact of being in year two of this chaotic and often inhumane presidency and its ripple effects.

A year ago, there was a collective sense of shock, but also we shared a powerful desire and drive for resistance, and organizing. A year later, we’re realizing what a long haul it all is, how deep the fractures are, how exhausting the daily shocks can be– how many times will we have to fight for these small scraps of a health care policy? ….and most of all, it’s sinking in how some of our long-held practices of powering through are not going to cut it if we’re going to make it.

We need Thanksgiving.

We need a chance to sit together around a table, and share the stories of our lives.  We need to linger too long over mashed potatoes while sharing the stories of the people who’ve had our backs, the places we’ve gone to feel better, and maybe even more, confessing the ones who didn’t, and our struggle to find that sense of home.

We need to pass the cranberries and the stuffing, and feel ourselves sharing, and giving, receiving and breathing, to find again, this connecting thread of life.

In this dehumanizing time, we need this to gather around a table, and remember what it means to be human, together.

Although I spoke earlier about that whole cranky-bad-mood-state as if it was about everyone else…I confess this general bad mood state was exactly where I was last Thursday as I drove to Denver for a 2-day training. I was irritated that I’d be gone all day, short tempered at all the traffic, and I was cranky about time – how impossible it felt that I’d ever be able to crack open this whole idea of generosity for this sermon that was fast approaching…especially when I needed to be in a training for two.whole.days.

How would it even be possible, I wondered, for people to feel generous right now, I mean
when the world is so freaking irritating….This training was actually something I’d been looking forward to – it was for progressive faith leaders on how to share our good news and the story of our work with the media….but….you know how trainings go – usually you’re happy if you get one small bit of new info, or you feel affirmed in what you’re already doing….

I figured, best case: I could sneak in a little work, take in some of the training–
you know, multi-task. Win-win.

So I show up and it’s a… table! with 30 faith leaders from all across the Front Range around it…the task, the trainers told us – for the day, and for the media more generally –
was to hear each other’s story and know ourselves as partners in this work, to claim a collective story. Which meant, to start, turning off tech so we could really be present…
which meant, multi-tasking, was a no-go. And thank God.

It didn’t take long for the tightness in my gut to break loose, as each person shared about their work, the impact their communities were having.

More than their incredible stories, though, what really did it was their messes. They asked us to share our biggest failures– and that shared vulnerability, and the laughter became generative, and connective – instead of depletion and defensiveness, I suddenly was feeling open, and maybe even…generous.

But it wasn’t til the second day that I realized just how connected this all was to this question I’d been struggling with on generosity.

The teacher had us pair up and share our answers to those four questions that I had us explore earlier today – and by the end, everyone was just like we were here – filled with so much energy, and joy.

It was easy to imagine how we would not just survive but thrive together in these times –
how we’d be ok, and even more, how we already were ok.

Every person in that room – and their communities – are doing so much good – they are all such brave leaders, leading brave communities stepping up for justice, gathering around tables in places that make them and whole communities feel better, dancing and singing along to joyful music, and generously unleashing courageous love in so many different ways, all across the front range. It was….it is….glorious.

All this was already true of course before any of us showed up in that room cranky and short tempered (I was not the only one), but we had been keeping it to ourselves,
striving on our own, struggling with our heads down.

It’s funny how even the most miraculous things can become mundane when you keep them to yourself – how you can get used to beauty so much it becomes – like, oh yeah, there are those mountains…whatever….I see them every day, it’s like, boring, even – how its impact can feel so – limited, isolated, tentative.

But then, someone asks a question, asking you to tell them a story of hope in the community you serve, a story of generosity, and you realize, your only issue is in choosing which one to tell….

Food Bank, or One Village One Family;
Faith Family, or Sanctuary;
Climate Justice or our caring team;
small groups or our campus ministry;
our relationships with our neighbors, our partnerships with other organizations –
or the way that a stranger told me recently that our church by way of our signs out on Drake, had really changed the whole city, for the good?

Suddenly in our sharing, the precious jewel we each were carrying became so clear. The only thing that had been missing was giving it away. And in the giving, I realized, it wasn’t actually just our story, the Foothills story, that I had to offer, and everyone else wasn’t just offering their stories, it was all, all of ours there in the room, our gifts, our treasures already – because it was all parts of this bigger story we were all a part of – our shared, connected, interdependent life.  And the only way we could really feel this
connectedness, this one ness – was in the sharing, the giving away, the opening up,
and the letting go.

Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg reminds us that this is what generosity actually is.
It is an active choice to let go.

To let go of our attachments and to release ourselves – realizing that in holding on, and hoarding, we uphold a dualistic notion of life – a sense of division between ourselves, and others. But in the giving away, we live into a deeper reality that everything is everyone’s, that nothing is truly just “ours,” that there is so much more power and joy; hope, and strength made possible in the sharing.

There was one story of hope, and generosity that I didn’t tell that day because I saved it to share with you today.

A couple of months ago, at the end of the summer, a terrible thing happened.  White supremacists marched openly with torches, protesters chanted Nazi slogans and
stormed the streets of Charlottesville. Pain welled up across our nation, and the sense grew again that perhaps everything is lost.

I was in my office, we were in the final stages preparing for the sanctuary vote, when one of you came to see me. You were heartbroken at Charlottesville, the way that hatred and just plain evil were gaining power. You wanted to do something. You’d been thinking about it.

Not too long before, your family had received a gift, you found yourself with an unusually large sum of money….$100,000 to be exact. You’d never had that kind of money, and you’d probably never have it again. Like most of us, I’m sure you had all sorts of ideas about what you’d like to spend that money on.

But this thing happened in Charlottesville, and it would’ve been so easy to just take it all as evidence that the world was doomed, and you should, hunker down, close off…. But you didn’t do that.  Instead, just like the woman in the story, you realized, that this money was a precious stone, that would only really find its worth when you gave it away.

And so you came to see me. Because when you thought about the best way to make the biggest difference – to have the most impact on all these unleashed forces of hate, you realized, that would be here, in this congregation, where our whole mission is to unleash courageous love.

And most of all, you confessed, the whole idea of giving this money to this church, it would just feel good, joyful, happy.

So friends, this is the story I bring to you today.  It’s a true story of generosity, and hope.
And it’s our story.  One among you, received something surprising, and precious, and when there was this moment, they decided to let it go, to give it away to support our mission and our partnership here.

It was given freely, without strings, with just two hopes:

The first:  to use it to make an impact – as directly as possible – to further our mission and magnify our ministry; to remove some of our longstanding barriers, and set a foundation for our next leap forward. The Board, in collaboration with the staff, and the finance team, has already been crafting a plan to align with these hopes.

And second: they hoped we’d use it to inspire others to discover their own generosity – which of course is why I decided to share this story with you today – in hopes that it will inspire everyone to consider their own precious stone that they have been holding on to,
or that might arrive suddenly – and to invite them to imagine that they could simply give it away.

It’s powerful, right? To take this story in. To take in what it means for this community,
and our mission, to be worthy of this kind of generosity, to be THE thing that feels like it has the most hope of countering those forces.

Because what I realize is that if it wasn’t already true – if we weren’t already giving of ourselves and being there for each other and the community in all the ways I listed and so many more, if we weren’t already generous, then this gift wouldn’t have happened.

An ungenerous people does not inspire more generosity – generosity grows generosity;
joy inspires joy; delight grows delight.  So this gift is delight, in response to all of this delight.

And also let’s just take in that the source of this gift is here, among us. Not some fancy donor with a foundation.  Not even some closet billionaire that’s been slyly flying under the radar. Just a regular person who loves this place, who is committed to our mission,
and who received a gift, and decided to give it to this church.

So I want you to once again, look at the person right next to you, again, not a person you came with. Imagine that they are the person who gave this gift.

And then, imagine it’s you. Imagine that you received this money, and then you decided to just share it.

Breathe in this generosity this hope that is everywhere – this huge energy, and joy.

What’s powerful in all this is that “they” didn’t give a big gift. We did.
There’s no “they.”

And there’s no “them” to receive it.  We receive it.  It’s all here, it’s all our story.

We together create what is possible, what joy, what goodness we are willing to share, and receive; what divisions we’re going to refuse by our continued and growing generosity.

As we gather around tables in this coming week, my hope is that we’ll each be generous with each other. Ask generous questions, offer generous responses, let laughter overtake us.  Be not afraid of tears. Feel ourselves already filled with this richness, this deliciousness, these precious jewels of life.

For all of the blessings we receive, and see – let us hold them all close, and when the time is right, let us turn to our hungry, aching world, and let it all go. Giving thanks, as the joy grows.

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A/Part: God as Presence, Partner, and Process

Last Sunday, Sean ended his sermon on Humanist Becoming by remind us of this picture.

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It is the image that Carl Sagan describes as the pale blue dot of earth.

“Look at that dot.” He says.
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization,
every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there— on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

It is a reality both terrifying and reassuring – clarifying, and mind-boggling. Astronauts looking back on the earth from space describe their first glimpse of our pale blue dot as a transformative experience –  so much so they have a name for it, they call it the “overview effect.”  It is an experience of mental clarity,  they say, when you are
“overwhelmed and awed by the  fragility and unity of life on our blue globe.”

They say that when they look back and see the earth as a unified whole, just floating there in space, they realize how absurd it is that there remains such inequity – how ridiculous it is that we would not all be working together, caring for each other –
because we are all so clearly in this rare shared experience on this one small speck
in the midst of this vast universe.

I know Sean keeps telling us that the secular age is a world disenchanted, but when I see this, I am awestruck – and mystified. It is more magical and enchanting than anything else I could imagine.

What greater marvels could there ever be?

————–

Scientist Mike McHargue had been already on a long journey of faith by the time he tells about his first encounter with this powerful image.

He had been a faithful Southern Baptist, and also a dedicated scientist. He’d done his work to reconcile these things, and it had been work. But somehow despite the arguments thrown his way from fellow scientists evangelizing atheism, and even from friends who challenged him to read Richard Dawkins (and he did), still he maintained a sense that God existed.  And he meant God in a classical sense – as Isaac Newton would have put it – God as a “Being who governs all things as Lord above all.”

When he went looking for Carl Sagan, he imagined that if anything, what he found in his insights would help him strengthen this faith, that he would find an even deeper understanding of God.

But instead, he says, it became his faith’s undoing.

“Nothing ever had shifted my perception of reality so violently,” he writes. Reading Sagan’s words and seeing this image – he felt “wrecked.” His beliefs were “wrecked.”

“‘For God so loved the world’” he writes, “seems absurd from the Voyager’s vantage point. Earth is a waterlogged pebble, one planet among countless others. What possible significance does the salvation of human kind hold?”

——————

In my Methodist seminary,  filled predominantly, as I told you a few Sundays ago, with Christian pastors-to-be, here was an almost universal appreciation for the topic that Diane asked me to preach on today – process theology.  And just as universal, was the acknowledgment that it is nearly impossible to preach on process theology.

Thanks Diane.

There are probably many reasons why my fellow seminarians – and given how infrequently most lay folks seem to have heard about it, most clergy people – feel this way.  Not the least of which is process theology’s struggle to meet McHargue’s crisis of faith – which I’d call, a longing to experience transcendent love.  Traditional notions of God are built to respond to that longing.  But process theology can feel…well, as Stephen Dunn acknowledges in his poem, “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” it’s hard to tell your child, “evolution loves you.”

Process theology is not simply about evolution, of course, but as I describe it, you will see that there are similar challenges. Process theology arose out of liberal theological impulses seeking to make sense of the idea of God given new scientific discoveries – an impulse to understand God in our secular age.

Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician, turned his attention to philosophy in the early twentieth century. His most significant work, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, came out in 1929, and is not, let me be clear, light reading – which is another reason I’m guessing pastors have been reluctant to preach it. They first had to get through it.

Whitehead acknowledged that new scientific understanding made it impossible to imagine the universe in a mechanical, linear paradigm with a God entirely external and superior – all powerful, never changing – the way Newton had.

In place of this old paradigm, Whitehead proposed that we understand God, and the universe, and life itself not as objects, but as events. Instead of life and God being nouns, Whitehead imagined them as verbs – dynamic and interactive and interrelated energies and actions– constantly changing but also creating and recreating by way of their interchange.  Whereas we had come to understand each element in life, each person, each animal – everything – all as independent entities, Whitehead asserted that there was no such thing – there is no way to understand any portion of life without considering, as he says “the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”

This is the process in process theology – although it wasn’t really until the arrival of Charles Hartshorn that Whitehead’s work turned from philosophy to theology – as Hartshorn made the claim that the whole of Whitehead’s creative interchange – is God – which is a reality that contains all of us, but is larger than any of us.  I am a part of God, in this system, and God is a part of me – you are a part of God, and God is a part of you.  And God is a part of everything, and everyone, past, present, future – the whole Universe.

Which is not to say that all of these parts are equally endowed with agency and awareness, but that all parts, to some degree or another, participate in the creative and dynamic interchange of life.

As that incredible quote from Annie Dillard goes “We are here to abet creation.”
Abet – as in, aiding and abetting.  We are here to assist creation, facilitate it – we are responsible for it. Not to stand separate, but to join in partnership with all of it, and with all the other forces, or events.

God is not just in this partnership – God is the partnership. God is the acting, the exchanging, the becoming – the energy and the novelty, the discovery – this is God not as love the noun, again, but as love, the verb.

If you wondered last week, what Sean meant when he spoke about a non-supernatural theism process theology is a great example.  There’s nothing supernatural in this God – “God is in the cosmos,” and God is also more than the cosmos.

Which doesn’t mean that process is simply a re-enchanted materialism. It just means that there is more to the universe than than simply a bunch of lifeless particles.

Our universe is – as Unitarian Universalist minister Gary Kowalski says,  “an ensemble of interrelated and dynamic happenings – from the energy that maintains a simple chemical bond – to the complex flow of information through a termite mound, or a coral reef – all of these are in constant change and interaction with all the others.”  And in all of these events, God is the link. The event in all events.  “Amid a multitude of partial and imperfect relationships,” Kowalski says, “God is the one to whom we are all perfectly related.”

It’s hard to overstate just how radical Whitehead, Hartshorn, and eventually John Cobb, and Henry Nelson Weiman, and all the other process theologians – how radical this understanding of God was – and is, still.

For example, in process theology, God is no longer omniscient, or all knowing.
God can’t be – because in process, novelty is the whole point – we are co-creators, as Diane said in her chalice lighting, God is creating us, and we are creating God.
God is the source of constant creativity, constant possibility – as scripture says it, “Behold, God is doing a new thing.” Except, using process framing, we might instead say “God is the doing of the new thing, the creating of the new thing.” Remember – verbs, not nouns.

Perhaps even more radical, in process, God is no longer omnipotent, or all powerful.
Because the whole process has power, and it is not directed by God – the exchange is something beyond anything we could call God’s intent.  Which isn’t to say that process doesn’t allow for God to have a will. It’s just that God’s will is expressed not in the classical sense – hierarchically, or patriarchally, but rather through persuasion, and relationship, co-creation. God is that energy that lures life toward the good through relationship – it is that force that moves through life by way of partnership, and co-discovery, in service of the greater and greatest common good.

—————-

When Mike McHargue’s faith was wrecked by Carl Sagan, he didn’t stop attending his Southern Baptist church, or stop teaching Sunday school. He became instead a closet atheist – epitomizing that quote from Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

In place of religious transcendence, however, he instead leaned into that once-devastating image from Carl Sagan, and towards astronomy more fully.  As he says, “when church lost its meaning, my cathedral became the night sky, my chosen worship instrument, a telescope.”

Along the way, he started to realize his prior notions of God and his desire to believe had been hampering his understanding of more advanced scientific concepts, as he’d been trying, subconsciously for the most part, to make sure it all could fit together. Newly freed by his unbelief, he immersed himself in quantum theory, and physics, and the greatest mysteries of our universe.

In McHargue’s recent book, the title of which – Finding God in the Waves, gives away the end of this story he starts his tale by quoting quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg, who says, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.”

Just as he dove most deeply into what he calls his “nerdom” of space, and astronomy, McHargue found – not God – at least not right away – but NASA.  They’d been following his writing and observations, and they invited him to come and have a private tour one of their research centers in Los Angeles.

And on this trip he found himself, to his own great surprise, trying to pray – for the first time since he’d become an atheist.  He was out on the beach, it was the middle of the night, and he was feeling still confused, and the longing he’d felt back in his crisis of faith had not gone away – if anything it was stronger.

He prayed like this – almost like the atheist prayers Sean has offered: “God, I don’t know who or what you are.  I don’t know anything about you. [I don’t know if you exist.] I can’t unlearn all the things that made me believe you aren’t real.”

He kept praying, and then, suddenly, as he tells it, it was like time stopped.  “The waves seemed to stand still, and I felt God with me, in me, and through me.  I felt connected to the source of life, and the source of all. I felt connected to everyone else, and all of humanity. And to all life on Earth.”

He goes on to say that all these words are insufficient to describe what the experience was actually like. It was the most powerful experience of his life.

While the scientist in him longed to argue himself out of it, try to rationalize, for this one moment, this one time, he just didn’t.  He just sat with it, without trying to name it, or give it meaning.  He says, even many years later, thinking about it, it still brings tears to his eyes, as he can feel once again that sense of connectedness, to everything, and this profound sense of peace, and comfort – clarity, and calm.

———————

There is so much loneliness in this life, especially in these days, so much fear. Too many of us carry stories of loss, and grief; uncertainty and suffering without any real sense of companionship, or true comfort. Even with the presence of good friends, or family, there can still remain an existential sense of isolation as we navigate the tragic gap between life’s possible beauty and its relentless brokenness.

But then, sometimes, through the haze, a presence breaks through, or tries to.
And by a presence, I do not mean simply-the presence of human hands or thoughts, or words – these are important, but insufficient. I mean something beyond the material –
some greater partnership, and process beyond objects. I mean a process and partnership that strengthens us  and pulls us out of ourselves and into the flow of it all – so that we feel both a part of everything, and yet that everything is so much more than us.

Maybe it comes, as it did for Mike, while walking along the beach in a state of confusion and longing, or maybe it comes through the telescope as we marvel at early morning meteor showers. Or maybe, it comes in that moment – even though there is no clear path for where it will all go, or how it all will work – when a community acts to offer shelter, and sanctuary for a mother and her children, and to simply trust, that this is enough.

However it is that it breaks through, this presence connects us to that reality as Albert Einstein put it, that although we experience ourselves “as something separated from the universe,” this is “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”

Like the “overview effect,” when this experience grasps us, even if only for a brief moment, we know, deep down, we are never truly alone.

It is not required, of course, that we name these sorts of experiences – these glimpses of our ultimate connectedness as God.

I often don’t.

But, process theology gives us one way to refuse to choose between the secular, and the sacred.  To instead knit these things together into a transcendent whole, instead of becoming immediately skeptical of these experiences, or preventing them from ever finding their way into our hearts in the first place – process theology invites us to claim them, trusting that somehow the pale blue dot – and everything that’s ever been contained on it – could be part of a whole dynamic reality that is, as Rebecca Parker says – “supreme not in knowing everything, but in receiving everything, not in controlling everything, but in imagining everything.”

If we imagine God as an entirely separate object – like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” then it’s true, like Mike McHargue put it, “’For God so loved the world’ [can] seem absurd,” but if instead God is the life force moving through it all – the creativity and the process of our dynamic interchange, then God is the most moved – supreme in compassion, in intimacy, in understanding, in holding complexity and paradox, in manifesting still yet more possibility.

So even though we still can’t say “evolution loves you,” we can still allow ourselves to feel connected to a love, and a luring, a partnership.  To feel not separate but a part of it all, enchanted by all we are creating together.

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The Gifts of A/theism

The Gifts of A%2Ftheism Worship Meme.pngThis sermon was offered in two parts, starting with….

Part 1:  The Gifts of Atheism

I don’t remember precisely when things started to fall apart, but we should probably blame feminism.  Or the arts….definitely the gays.  I’d been a dedicated Catholic up until then – confirmed, twice a week, rosary-praying, devout Catholic.  But then, somewhere around my second year of college, as theologian Paul Tillich would say, all the myths broke, and suddenly the church, God, all of it, felt empty, meaningless.

I wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t against religion, or against the idea of God – although I did harbor some resentment at the ways these things had been weaponized against queer bodies and lives, women and people on the margins, and had been co-opted to serve the needs of capitalism and the state.

Other than that, I was pretty neutral.

My atheism was not – however – primarily about something missing, or what wasn’t – about a lack.  It was about what was, and what IS.  I was a young theatre artist, and the theatre had become my church.  And although I would have easily described what we were doing as sacred, and holy, there was no need for God talk.  We were present, alive, discovering, creating, struggling, changing, becoming.  The world was to us, tragic, and beautiful, and we were alive in it.  This reality, this life, was more than enough.

One of my seminary professors used to remind us that there is no “Christianity,” only “Christianities.”  Just as there is no Buddhism, or Islam, only Buddhisms, and Islams.
In the same way, there is no atheism, only “atheisms.”

Atheist-humanist and the author of Good without God Greg Epstein gives this overview: “The most popular kind [of atheism] is ‘ontological’atheism, a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe.  There is [also] ‘ethical’ atheism, a conviction that, even if there is a creator of the world, [they do] not run things by rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is ‘existential’ atheism, a nervy assertion
that even if there is a God, [they have] no authority to be the boss of my life. There is ‘ignostic’ atheism, which claims that the word “God” is so confusing that it is meaningless. [And then] there is ‘pragmatic’ atheism, which regards God as irrelevant to ethical living.”

This list doesn’t even get to the 8% of atheists who say that they still believe in God,
which is interesting, and probably it leaves out a whole bunch of other atheisms.

Despite this great variety, I’ve noticed that certain atheists get a little more press than others.  Search “atheism” on youtube, and you’ll discover the most outrageous, demanding, and fundamentalist atheists, often going head to head with the most outrageous, demanding and fundamentalist Christians.

This is the inherent danger in any belief claim – that it fails to make space for doubt – and atheism is no exception.  It’s a great irony how often atheists flee from one sort of dogma only to embrace another,  and how frequently I hear atheists painfully describe how judgmental they found their past religious communities, only to go on to a long rant about the foolishness, stupidity and even childishness of anyone who affirms a belief in God.

I’ve wondered if this inclination comes out of injury – as in, that saying from Richard Rohr, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”  Because there was perhaps a time when there was a longing to believe, to get the “God thing,” and it just wasn’t there.  And so instead of hope and comfort, the idea of God became a source of shame, or pain, or self-doubt.

It doesn’t help that at least in the US, prejudice towards atheism remains pretty strong.

As Unitarian Univeralist humanist Kendyl Gibbons reminds us, “atheists consistently rank lower” in people’s opinions than “Muslims, recent immigrants, or gays and lesbians, or any other minority group.” No wonder atheists often feel the need to be on the defensive.

When I applied to seminary, a decade or so after the myths had broken – knowing these sorts of prejudices….The first question I asked the admissions counselor was whether or not it would be ok, that I didn’t really get “God”.

She laughed and said, well, seminary is a process of deconstruction, and then reconstruction, so where you are starting is where many of the more traditional students will end up by the end of their first year.  So, the important question isn’t whether this place can hold what you don’t believe.  The important question is if you are willing to discover here what you do.

Atheism is growing in the United States – there are roughly double the number of people who’d call themselves atheists now than there were a decade ago, and many of them are young.  Whereas the general public might find this idea disturbing, I find it hopeful. Or at least, I do if this growing group of atheists can do what that wise admissions counselor advised me to do – discover and claim a positive, which is to say, not-reactive, not-demeaning, not judgmental, but rather accessible, wonder-filled, imaginative, and constructive faith.  A faith that is grounded not in belief, but in values, and vision;
not in certainty, but in possibility and wonder; not in the need for some other world,
but with gratitude and amazement at this world that is right here, and now.

Because just like I felt back in my theatre days, atheism at its best cherishes what is.  It doesn’t need to hold out hope for another world, it takes this one at face value, and is astonished by it a lot of the time….studies show that atheists are extremely likely – more likely than any other belief group – to experience a sense of wonder in the universe.

Of course, atheism knows there’s a lot about life that isn’t right, but it doesn’t require a big huge explanation about why, or some great master plan. Atheism recognizes there are limits on what humans can know.  So atheists will say plainly:  Life’s terrible sometimes.  And there’s no savior coming to fix it. So let’s all just do what we can to make it just a little better.

To help with all this, atheism turns to science, even while trying not to turn it into an idol….yes, even atheists can commit idolatry.

Atheism at its best puts (back) at its center what can it can sometimes miss, but was actually its original impulse – doubt, and it maintains a general orientation that I call “ICBW.”  It’s like the atheist’s WWJD.  ICBW: I could be wrong.

In her brilliant piece, “no-god wears comfortable shoes,” Unitarian Universalist Liz James reminds us that most of all, the gift of atheism is that “there is not a God to love us – which means that we need each other to the do the job.   And we don’t need to worry about whether we can do it because the truth is we can do nothing else.”

And so for this gift, and this chance to be for each other, this much love, and for this our only life,
we can only say thank you.

Part 2:  The Gifts of Theism
In the years leading up to seminary, I started to get more and more curious about the idea of God.

I had no renewed inclination towards belief, but I wanted to know about people who did.  What was it like? Did they really mean it?

Writer Salman Rushdie – a self-described hard-line atheist – says that atheists are obsessed with God, and I guess in some ways, I was no exception. 

What I knew for sure however, was that I could not ask these questions in my Unitarian Universalist church.  Whereas a century earlier, the so-called “Great Agnostic” of the civil war era, Robert Ingersoll had described atheism as a joyful embrace of free inquiry,
I was finding it to be exactly the opposite.  In my primarily atheistic congregation,
rather than feeling like my mind and heart were free to explore in all the ways of love, and truth, I was getting the clear message that there were certain sections of religion and human life that were off-limits.  Specifically: the G word.

Which is perhaps why, when they asked incoming students to describe our mission statement for our time at seminary, I knew what had to be at the top of the list:
“I want to know people mean when they say God. I want to listen to their stories, and meet them there without defensiveness, just listen.”

It’s a dangerous thing, listening.  More vulnerable than we often realize.  Just as vulnerable as sharing our own, it takes courage to let another’s story in.  To take it for what it is, to let it change you, and your assumptions.  To let yourself feel connected to it.

We have a lot of examples these days, and a lot of practice at not-listening,
at self-defense, at suspicion – as if hearing another’s truth is inherently an attack on your own, as if in the hearing we must immediately begin formulating our counter-attack.  But listening to understand, especially to someone sharing something you sincerely don’t understand, something that at times has been used against you, and your family….it was terrifying.  And transformational.

Of course it helped that asking people in seminary to tell me about God was like asking a new grandparent to tell me about their grandchild – just, fewer pictures.  They’d eagerly start off with the usual words, the ones you say when you’re applying to be a Protestant minister. But before long, if I asked more, and listened more, they’d tell me in real words,
words I could understand.

I was shocked to discover – and I’m embarrassed to admit just how shocked I was – that in most cases, they did not actually believe that God was a man in the sky.  Despite the caricature portrayed by George Carlin, or Bill Maher, they didn’t actually believe in God as a celestial peeping Tom. They described instead – a feeling, a knowledge, a mystery.  They spoke of God as the creative process, or the hope of justice, or the will to change.

The Lutherans told me about God as revealed in Jesus on the cross, by which, I learned, they meant, God as unconditional, relentless love for everything, and everyone,
and God who knows suffering, and suffers alongside us.  God as companion, and partner.

One of my earliest friends, and someone I really admired, told me how he believed that God answers prayers.  I thought about that for four months before I had the courage to ask him what he meant.  Turns out, he meant exactly what he said, but just didn’t believe we could or should know how.   It’s not one-for-one, like a drive-up window.  It’s not a wish list.  It’s a mystery, and we’re not always supposed to know how it works, but to trust that it does.

This is one of the great gifts of theism: to know that you are in need, to ask for help, to trust that help will come.

As with atheism, there so many different theisms.  Some theists are committed to all the omnis – God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere.  Some find only one, or maybe none of these important.  Some, like the ontological atheists in reverse, are committed to God as the actor in a creation event.
This is not, despite again the caricatures, necessarily incompatible with an affirmation of the big bang, or evolution.   It is God as what comes before – as in our story:  God the initiator, the energy, the spark.

How and if that creative force participates in human history is one of the big questions for theists. Much of Christian thought is shaped  by the promise of God’s possible intervention,especially on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.  For a while I found this idea troubling as in, disempowering – for the humans.  But then my friend, a PhD candidate focused on the black church, reminded me that when there’s nothing on this earth that seems capable of making things right, you better hope there’s a power somewhere else that might just break through.

Lately, I get this.

Each of these conversations was powerful, connective, and in their own ways, beautiful.  Even when what they said was almost entirely confusing,  I still loved them in their truth, and their willingness to share it with me.

Conversations about God (even for atheists) are ultimately conversations about what matters the most, what means the most, the how, and the what, and the who of our whole lives, in the biggest possible sense.

Theism gifts us a framework for these big questions, it provide language, and some great stories…it imagines that somehow, all of this, could have meaning, and even a purpose.

Even more, theism reminds us that figuring all this out, isn’t all on us. Because most of all, the gift of theism is the promise that we’re not alone, that there is a love that is the sort of love that would meet us right where we each are, and companion us in a way that feels just right for US, that would feel supportive in and loving in a way that we need, healing in a way that truly heals – and that our only need,our only task, is to receive, and to be grateful.

By the time I finished my first year of seminary, I was starting to feel cheated.  Why weren’t these big and varied stories a part of my Unitarian Universalist church?  We claimed theological diversity, but more often than not, what it seemed we meant was,
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”

It’s been over ten years since I first started seminary, and in many ways, Unitarian Universalism has changed in this past decade. And in our shared ministry, we have made real efforts to welcome to all theological orientations, and all the big questions, G word included. I think we’re doing pretty well, even though sometimes it can be scary,
and sometimes still we have moments of defensiveness, or pain that hasn’t been transformed ruling the day. Me included.

But in our world today, there aren’t that many examples of people really making a go at this – really figuring out how to – as our mission statement says – embrace diversity.
Not just tolerate, or talk around it, but listen for it, lean into it, remain curious, and listen for – and embrace all the gifts – each of our ways of seeing and knowing, as gifts.  And so mostly, the gift here – in our a/theism, is that we are trying. That we are trying to welcome in all the gifts we each bring, and the gifts that are possible in the ways we are changing, and bravely, becoming, together.  And for all of these gifts, we can only say, once again, thank you.

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